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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [45:30]
Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [45:08]
Symphony no. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [36:35]
Symphony no. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884) [40:39]
Variations on a theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a [18:58]
Tragic overture, Op. 81 (1880) [13:35]
Academic Festival overture, op. 80 [10:16]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2009/2010, Helsingborg Concert Hall, Helsingborg. DDD
CPO 777 720-2 [3 CDs: 64:28 + 69:04 + 77:19] 

Experience Classicsonline

Andrew Manze has described his Brahms symphony cycle with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra of Sweden as “post-historically informed”. In this he takes a different tack from conductors such as Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, who have recorded the symphonies with original instrument orchestras. The Helsingborg orchestra plays on modern instruments, but Manze has made a considerable attempt to rediscover the performance practice of Brahms’ time. This was done by examining original sources such as the autographs and early editions of the scores, and Brahms’ own arrangements for piano four hands. Other documents consulted by Manze included a biography of Brahms and a monograph by Fritz Steinbach. Steinbach was Hans von Bülow’s successor at the Meiningen orchestra which gave the premiere performance of the Fourth Symphony. The size of the orchestra was also a consideration. The Helsingborg forces comprise sixty-one players, obviously a smaller band than that used for performances in the Romantic tradition such as Bernstein’s with the Vienna Philharmonic. All of this musicological research is interesting to read about, but what difference does it make to the playing?
The First Symphony opens a little more con moto than usual, with forward wind parts; the timpani are less intrusive than in Bernstein’s Vienna recording. The Allegro is quite brisk, and works up quite a deal of propulsive energy. The Andante sostenuto has an exploratory feel at first; the winding string lines are very cleanly played, including the solo for the leader. The Poco allegretto has a relaxed, slightly bucolic atmosphere, something reinforced by the prominent wind parts. The complex finale begins in tense and questing fashion, with a sense of energy gathering for a strenuous resolution. Again the main theme feels a bit quicker than conventional readings, although the timing is not that much faster than Bernstein’s (16:17 versus 17:55). The strings don’t have the richness of the Vienna Philharmonic’s, but the violin’s agility in the skittering staccato passages is impressive. The smaller orchestra clarifies Brahms’ scoring, which in mainstream performances can occasionally sound quite thick. Manze brings the symphony in at 45:30 as against 52:06 for Bernstein, but nothing sounds rushed, just clean and energetic.
The Haydn Variationsfollows the first symphony; each variation is conveniently banded. The theme is played with an innocent perkiness; the second variation has a volatile Hungarian feel, while the hairpin dynamics in the fourth are carefully delineated. The fifth is not taken too fast, but has an infectious character, with the enjoyable syncopations in the string parts. The passacaglia finale has the sunniness of the Serenades.
The Second Symphony begins in muted, autumnal fashion; one can clearly hear the trombonists forming their notes in the chorale. The atmosphere brightens somewhat for the second subject group that appears first on the cellos and violas - beautifully played by the Helsingborgers. The contrapuntal lines in the development section come across clearly with the smaller orchestra. Manze shows great care for the dynamics, avoiding long passages played at forte. The restrained colour palette continues into the second movement; the cellos play the first subject eloquently, giving way to a brighter second subject on horn and oboes. The third movement has a gentle, ländler-like feel; the more animated passages that follow are played with sharply-pointed rhythms, with the syncopation brought out enjoyably. This rhythmic precision continues into the finale, which has an infectious vitality. Manze doesn’t slow down for the second subject, which helps maintain the tension. This rhythmic tautness does not come at the expense of flexibility of tempi; there is in particular quite a ritornando at the end of the development section. The brass are nicely prominent in the final pages, finishing with some pleasant grip in the trombone scales. This performance is again faster then Bernstein at 45:08 versus 48:28.
The Third Symphony’s opening chords are held back a little, but not dragged out as Bernstein does; the main theme breaks in vigorously, like a swimmer launching confidently into the surf. In this movement the antiphonal layout of the violins - as was the case in Meiningen - makes the interplay between them noticeable. The second movement’s beginning chorale theme is quite slow and sustained, and Manze keeps hold of the tempo all the way to the climax. I had never noticed the icy effect of the violins playing in octaves near the coda before; this effect is enhanced by the strings playing without vibrato. The lovely poco allegretto is taken faster and less luxuriously than most, making it wistful rather than tragic. The horn solo is well played, but the tone is thin and a bit saxophoney. The finale builds excitingly to a surging tutti, and the transition to the final poco sostenuto is well handled. The rhythms are again precise and infectious, managing to build tension without an excessively fast main tempo. There is daylight between Manze and Bernstein in this symphony, the former performance being more than five minutes faster.
The Fourth Symphony gets underway like a sailing ship gradually responding to a faint breeze. The wind and inner string parts are more noticeable than usual. Manze seemed a little inhibited early in the exposition, but this holding back gives the movement a slow burn intensity that builds inexorably. The second movement has some wonderful playing, particularly in the ravishingly handled second subject; the pizzicato accompaniment was more prominent than I had heard before. The Allegro giocoso jumps out of the blocks in athletic fashion; the triangle is not too raucous, but glistens discreetly. The great passacaglia fourth movement is not taken too fast, and the sparing string vibrato adds to the foreboding air. Manze varies his tempi discreetly, slowing in particular in the flute solo, although not as luxuriantly as Bernstein - whose finale takes over a minute longer. The autumnal middle variations give way to some of Brahms’ most uncompromising codas, played again with great rhythmic tautness and drive. This performance is around three minutes faster than Bernstein’s, the finale of which brings to mind Hanslick’s remark about how this movement reminded him of being beaten up by two clever people.
I think Manze’s performances are quite outstanding. His interpretations are taut without being over-driven; at the same time he is sensitive to the emotional ebbs and flows of Brahms’ music, and his management of transitions is masterly. The performances have an objectivity about them that makes Bernstein’s, although beautifully played, sound self-indulgent. Throughout there is a sense that Manze has tried to hear this very familiar repertoire with fresh ears. He has obviously thought hard about issues such as rubato, and manages to steer a middle course between extreme pulling around of the tempo (such as Bernstein indulges in) and metronomic regularity. His background as a violinist is evident in the fine playing he gets from the Helsingborg strings; the adept balancing of the parts makes light of Brahms’ thick orchestration. The only reservations I had were regarding the principal horn, who has a rather watery tone in the solos which tend to be played quite softly, no doubt at Manze’s direction. However, the contributions from the horn section to the tuttis are extremely fine and not at all lacking in body. An orchestra of this size is never going to have the richness of a Berlin or Vienna band, but it works extremely well with the conductor’s lean and incisive approach. The SACD recording sounded excellent on my aging stereo, close up but with plenty of vividness and warmth.
Guy Aron

see also review by Gavin Dixon 



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