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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) [12:57]
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [43:21]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Gesang der Geister über den Wassern D714 (1821) [12:18]
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (1817, arr. Brahms 1871) [2:20]
An Schwager Kronos D583 (1816, arr. Brahms 1871) [2:28]
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
The Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Salle Pleyel, Paris, 15-16 November 2007
German texts and English and French translations included
Experience Classicsonline

Last year I gave an enthusiastic welcome to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Brahms First symphony, which was the opening instalment of his new cycle based on the ‘Brahms and his Antecedents’ concert project. For any readers who acquired that first volume and who shared my admiration for Gardiner’s achievement there, my review can be brief. I can assure them that this latest instalment in the cycle is as provocative, perceptive and exciting as its predecessor and they can invest with confidence. New readers, as they say, should start here.
As before Gardiner prefaces the symphony with some fascinating and highly relevant choral pieces by Brahms himself and by Schubert. The latter’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern is something of a rarity. Gardiner has recorded it previously, however. It was the filler to the recording he made with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1997 of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (DG 457 648-2) It’s a setting for male voce choir (TTBB) of words by Goethe and the accompaniment is rather unusual, consisting of two violas, two cellos and a double bass. I haven’t heard Gardiner’s earlier recording. This present performance makes Schubert’s piece sound surprisingly modern. I think that’s in large part due to the spare accompaniment, which has a rather unearthly sound, especially when played, as here, on what I assume are gut strings. As Schubert was sometimes wont to do in his choral music he takes the top tenor line very high in places but the men of the Monteverdi Choir rise to the challenge. The choir gives a vivid performance, strongly projected. It’s an interesting piece if not, I think, top-drawer Schubert and it’s an excellent example of early German Romantic music.
The two arrangements of Schubert songs for unison male voice choir and orchestra by Brahms are even more unusual – indeed, I wasn’t previously aware of their existence. ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ is effectively orchestrated but I was a little surprised to find that the setting doesn’t really gain in excitement over the usual solo version, as one might have expected from an arrangement that employs, on this occasion, twenty male voices in unison accompanied by orchestra. Somehow there’s at least as much power and thrill when one hears a solo singer such as Fischer-Dieskau proclaiming majestically the word “Ewigkeit” accompanied simply by a piano. A slightly different problem arises in ‘An Schwager Kronos’. For all the excellence of the choral singing – and the men produce wonderful tone both here and elsewhere – a group of singers can’t savour the words in individual phrases such as “Labe dich! – Mir auch, Mädchen” in the same way that a solitary singer can. All that said, I’m glad to have heard these acts of homage by Brahms, which are very interesting in their own right. 
Before moving on to the more familiar pieces on the disc I think one comment is appropriate.  If I have a complaint about the otherwise excellent documentation, I wish a little space had been devoted to the provision of some information about the more recherché music on the disc. The fascinating discussion between Sir John and composer Hugh Wood focuses almost exclusively on the symphony, with some comments about the Alto Rhapsody. However, the other three items on the programme, which probably will be unfamiliar to many collectors, are not even mentioned. That’s a pity, especially since the raison d’être of the whole series is to place the Brahms symphonies in the context of music that exerted a profound influence on him.
Nathalie Stutzmann’s account of the Alto Rhapsody gets the disc off to an impressive start. I always find this an amazing work. It contains music that is some of the most searching and profound that Brahms ever composed, including some harmonic language and some sonorities that, to the best of my knowledge, he rarely if ever matched elsewhere in his output. This work alone, it seems to me, would justify the title of Schoenberg’s famous essay “Brahms the Progressive”. I love the dark, tangy colours that we hear in the orchestra right at the start of this performance. Typical of Gardiner is the way accents and dynamics are sharply and precisely observed to bring out all the contours and contrasts in the music and to imbue it with the proper weight.
Miss Stutzmann’s singing is marvellous. Her voice has rich brown hues to it and she sings most expressively, though without the slightest hint of exaggeration. Worthy of note are touches such as the mystery with which she invests “die Öde verschlingt ihn”. The solo part encompasses a huge range during the opening pages in particular; from low A flat to the G flat nearly two octaves above. Miss Stutzmann seems to encompass it all with consummate ease. After the uneasy music of the first part, when the Big Tune arrives (7:29) it’s like balm to the soul. This is an eloquent, thoughtful performance of one of Brahms’s great works and I found it a moving experience.
And so to the Second Symphony. Once again I took down from the shelves the excellent account by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In his cycle, Mackerras aimed to recreate, albeit on modern instruments, the scale of performance that Brahms would have experienced from Fritz Steinbach’s Meiningen Court Orchestra. I was very interested to read Gardiner’s comment in the conversation with Hugh Wood in the booklet. He avers that we “shouldn’t be fooled by the size of the Meiningen orchestra (totalling 49 players) into thinking that it corresponded to Brahms’ ideal.”  Gardiner says that Brahms used it for semi-private run-throughs, implying that he would have preferred a larger band, as is fielded here, Gardiner’s band running to sixty-two players. A key difference between Gardiner’s orchestra and the one used by Mackerras lies in the size of the respective string sections. Gardiner has 12, 10, 8, 7, 5 while Mackerras has 10, 8, 6, 6, 4.  
I think it should be said in defence of Sir Charles that I believe the claims he made in support of his recordings were relatively modest. He was careful to relate his recreation to just one, very particular orchestra of the time and his performance was given on modern instruments. In fact I think that, as was the case with the First Symphony, both Mackerras’s and Gardiner’s versions have their own validity and we can learn much from both.
In the booklet discussion between Hugh Wood and Sir John one of the points they’re keen to make is that this is by no means a “light” symphony. As Wood puts it “you don’t have to listen to the Second for very long to discover that its cheerfulness has been grossly exaggerated.”  That’s a view with which I concur, though there is a positive aspect to the music, and Wood and Gardiner stress that too in their conversation. When it comes to the performance itself I feel that over the span of the whole symphony Gardiner balances very successfully the dark and light sides of the work.
So, for example, at the start of the first movement there’s a slight trace of tartness to the string tone, which I’m sure is no accident, but then, moments later, the wonderful phrases on first violins at cue A (1:12) truly sing out. In general Gardiner’s reading of this movement has plenty of energy. Yet I notice that he’s far from afraid to modify tempi, often subtly, even when not marked in the score, to achieve the right effect. A good example of this occurs at cue F (4:08). As you’d expect he takes the exposition repeat (hooray!), as does Mackerras. The violins are divided, which is another cause for celebration. There are many times during the performance when this reaps great dividends. My ear was caught, for example, by the passage between cues J and K, where not only does the split of the two sections allow for their distinct parts to be heard clearly but, crucially, the viola line, which is an integral part of the texture, comes through clearly in the middle – physically as well as musically – just as Brahms surely intended. It’s details like this, which come through quite naturally, as well as the overall sweep of the reading, that make this performance so enthralling. One last point of detail to mention is the famous horn solo just after cue M (17:20). Played on a natural horn the passage sounds marvellously earthy.
The second movement starts gravely, with the lower strings playing their yearning line with splendid sonority. This is the only true adagio movement in a Brahms symphony and Gardiner appreciates the added gravitas. There are many felicities in the playing, such as the fine woodwind work at cue B  (2:51). Gardiner takes a significantly more weighty view of stretches of this movement, such as the opening, than does Mackerras. I like the Mackerras reading but Gardiner seems to tap a deeper, more tragic vein.
Both performances are light and smiling at the start of the third movement. When the presto ma non assai section arrives both conductors are lithe and nimble in their readings. One could argue that neither really heeds the injunction ma non assai but I don’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I find that both are exhilarating here. Of the two it’s Gardiner whose account is the more precipitate and exciting; in his hands the presto music really fizzes.
Gardiner’s finale is splendid, as is the Mackerras reading. Both performances have abundant energy and sweep. Once more there are some fine points of detail to savour, especially in the Gardiner account. As the excitement builds Gardiner’s timpanist, superbly incisive throughout the symphony, plays with tremendous panache, adding greatly to the drive of the performance. The blazing coda is exhilarating and jubilant. Mackerras too drives the music to a joyous conclusion but it’s Gardiner who has me on the edge of my seat.
As was the case with the respective First Symphonies I think the recorded sound plays a part in the overall evaluation of the performance. The Telarc sound for Mackerras is very pleasing but, at least on my equipment, sounds a little soft centred. By comparison the SDG recording is much more present and a bit more forward and the engineers have captured the punch and power of the performance, as well as its more subtle moments. I still esteem the Mackerras reading highly but I feel that, as with the First Symphony, Gardiner has the edge.
We’re now halfway through this Gardiner cycle and the very high expectations aroused by Volume One have been met comfortably in this second instalment. This is shaping up to be a tremendous Brahms cycle, with the vocal items a substantial and enlightening bonus. As with Volume One the attractions of this release are enhanced by SDG’s usual high presentation standards. Last year I made the CD of the First Symphony one of my Recordings of the Year. This latest instalment will be on the shortlist for 2009, I feel sure – unless SDG trump this particular ace by releasing Symphony 3 before the year end. One can live in hope.
John Quinn    



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