Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 3 [39:46]
Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90 [39:10]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live: Munich, Herkulessaal der Residenz, 16-17 March 2006 (2); Vienna, Goldener Saal des Musikvereins, 16 January 2010. (3)
BR KLASSIK 900111 [79:05]

Johannes Brahms was forty-two years old before he was brave enough to release his first symphony. Schumann had earlier proclaimed the young composer to be the natural successor to Beethoven, and Brahms found such an expectation to be practically unbearable, and thus delayed a sojourn into the realm of the symphony for some years. He needn’t have worried. No less a musician than Hans von Bülow proclaimed Brahms’ emotion-packed First Symphony to be “Beethoven’s tenth.”

Brahms presented his Second Symphony in 1877, only one year after the first. It is the result of a summer retreat in Pörtschach on the Wörthersee which proved to be enormously peaceful and productive. And yet, despite these happy circumstances, Brahms warned future listeners that his new symphony was laden with melancholy. This is hard to believe upon listening to the music, which is arguably some of the sunniest and most hopeful of the composer’s output. The Second Symphony received a triumphant first performance in Vienna on 30 December 1877 under Hans Richter’s able baton. Vienna’s most formidable critic Eduard Hanslich was effusive with praise, declaring that Brahms’ new symphony was “incontrovertible proof” that symphonies could still be written after Beethoven.

The second is a work that is full of sunshine. With its gorgeous double theme beginning in the cellos and basses, followed by a lovely response from the horns, the strings soon take over with a counter-theme that is reminiscent of a lullaby. The beautiful slow movement is followed by lilting third, and the symphony ends with a joyous finale.

Mariss Jansons evokes an enormous and rich tone from the Bavarian Radio Symphony. He chooses tempos that both convey the profundity of the music while never letting it bog down or die on the vine. Balances are of the first order and the string tone is so warm and vibrant that it practically glows. More and more compact disc releases are live recordings from concerts instead of “studio” recordings with multiple takes and fixes. That so many of these recordings come out sounding so superb is both a testament to the quality of orchestral playing around the world, and a compliment to the recording industry for finding a way to keep classical music coming to us while still minimizing the enormous cost of recording a symphony orchestra.

Brahms’ Third is a far different animal from the Second. Although cast in the happy, pastoral key of F major, this is a work that is full of pathos. Of particular merit is the mysterious third movement with its haunting minor key theme. Branford Marsalis was later to take this marvelous melody and turn it into the basis for a fascinating jazz piece on his album “The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born.” Again Jansons captures all the range of emotions in this stormy work without ever letting the playing become overwrought.

With hundreds of fine recordings of these pieces available, it can be hard to justify yet another. These performances however, merit a spot in any collection. Whether this is your first experience with the music or your fiftieth, these are recordings that have exceptional merit.

Kevin Sutton

Strong performances marked by rich tone and just-right choices of tempo and demeanor. Well worth adding to any collection.

Kevin Sutton sings and teaches music in Dallas, TX. His additional writings can be found at Follow him on twitter @Maestro214.