Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [39:46]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [39:10]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra)/Mariss Jansons
rec: 16-17 March 2006, Hercules Hall, Residenz, Munich, Germany (Symphony 2), 16 January 2010, Goldener Saal des Musikvereins, Vienna, Austria (Symphony 3) DDD
BR KLASSIK 900111 [79:05]

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor Mariss Jansons have recorded live performances of two of Brahms’ symphonies presented here in splendid DSD/SACD sound for the BR Klassik label.

Brahms completed his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 in 1877, just one year after his First. It was produced quickly, mainly during a summer holiday in Pörtschach on Wörthersee Lake, Austria, a favourite holiday destination of Brahms. He completed the score in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden. Brahms modestly wrote to a friend, “I don't know whether I have a pretty symphony. I must inquire of learned persons!” It was Hans Richter who conducted the première in Vienna with the Philharmonic in 1877. The four movement score is occasionally referred to as Brahms’ ‘Pastoral’.

In Jansons’s reading the symphony radiates open-air contentment. Containing an abundance of romantic expression the opening movement offers textures that have sufficient buoyancy and tempi that never feel heavy or dragging. A slightly more serious side is displayed in the brooding slow movement. Courteous and compassionate, the third movement contains some remarkable playing especially from the glowing woodwind. I loved the early Presto ma non assai passage for strings playing leggiero. In the closing movement there’s a sense of Alpine freshness to Brahms’ glowing scoring. Jansons ends proceedings in a majestic manner with trumpets and trombones finally letting loose in full glory in the last few measures.

It was six years before Brahms commenced work on his Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. This four movement score was written mainly in the southwest German spa town of Wiesbaden in the summer of 1883. That same year the première was given in the Vienna Musikverein at a Vienna Philharmonic concert under Hans Richter who described the score as ‘Brahms’s Eroica’.

The opening movement of the Third here exudes a remarkably heroic feel. I was struck by the bold and surging pulses of energy produced. The assured Jansons is relaxed throughout the warm and congenial second movement - so evocative of a Wiesbaden summer. Tenderness personified - as if the music is floating on air - could easily describe Jansons way with the harmonious and affectionate third movement. The concluding movement contains writing of tension and of vacillation with Jansons maintaining an air of mystery from start to finish even when all the reserves of energy are exhausted.

My benchmark recordings of these two symphonies form part of EMI’s evergreen three disc set of the four symphonies from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia. Klemperer’s aristocratic performances of power and expression were recorded with the great producer Walter Legge at their favoured recording venue London’s Kingsway Hall in 1956/57 on EMI Classics 5 62742 2 (c/w Haydn Variations; Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig, mezzo; Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures). Rightly selected as part of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings the Century’ series, the sound on this digitally re-mastered set is outstanding.

I also greatly admire the three disc set of the four Brahms symphonies from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The digital recordings were produced in 2008 at live performances in the Philharmonie, Berlin on EMI Classics 2672542. Central to the performing tradition of the Berlin Philharmonic the orchestra have this music running through their veins. Rattle’s performances are warmly recorded, have a spontaneous feel and convey a Romantic power of great intensity.

Returning to the present disc these are excellent performances. They certainly rank up there amongst the finest available versions. These are live recordings but I was generally unaware of any audience presence. I’m not quite sure what a section from J.M.W. Turner’s oil painting ‘The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons’ is doing on the front cover of the booklet.

Michael Cookson

see also review by Kevin Sutton

Excellent performances in live recordings. These rank up there amongst the finest available versions.