We live in post-h.i.p times. That's post historically
informed practice to you and me, the term Andrew Manze uses
to describe his Brahms interpretations. He's hardly alone
in that approach: Norrington, Harnoncourt, Mackerras and Gardiner
have all performed Brahms with modern orchestras but using ideas
from the period performance world. All seem to have moved on
further from h.i.p. dogmas than Manze, whose loyalty to the
letter of the score and unwillingness to apply rubato occasionally
make him seem positively reactionary. Evidently it's
post-h.i.p. to be square.
Nevertheless, these recordings have much to commend them, and
Manze achieves his goal, whether h.i.p. or post-h.i.p., of breathing
new life into works stifled by their own performance traditions.
Manze discusses his approach at length in his liner-note. He
comes over as erudite but makes no excuses for his occasional
idiosyncrasies. Other scholars and conductors have been through
the source materials before, but Manze has found new insights
by studying the composer's own piano duet arrangements,
which have many phrasing marks that didn't make it into
the orchestral scores. Manze also traces the gradual changes
in Brahms interpretation through the 20th century.
His aim is to extrapolate back to Brahms' own time in
the hope of capturing something of the original feel of the
works. These days everybody knows that's a fool's
errand, but the musical insights that result make for satisfying
listening, whatever the historical veracity of the approach.
In terms of tempos, Manze contends that the allegros have become
slower and the adagios faster over the years. There has also
been, he suggests, a huge increase in the amount of rubato applied.
Since Brahms himself wrote not to slow up unless the score says
so, Manze is surely justified in his more austere approach.
The effect is to bring out the Classical character in this music.
You'll often hear echoes of Beethoven and even Mozart
that don't come through in more liberal interpretations.
In the first movement of the First Symphony, for example, the
music is fast and steady, creating a sense of inexorable, tragic
and even fatalistic momentum. In the first movement of the Second,
the trombone chorales sound for all the world like the graveyard
scene of Don Giovanni.
Critical reaction so far has been surprisingly uniform in its
praise. I'd anticipate a little more disagreement among
listeners as these recordings become better known, as they surely
will be. Comparison with Harnoncourt or Gardiner reveals a slightly
modular feel to Manze's structuring. When you hear Karajan's
Brahms, it always flows, with the phrases seamlessly weaving
together. That's an approach that most in the post-h.i.p.
world have maintained, but it requires more rubato in the transitions
than Manze will permit himself. The result is a greater focus
on the moment.
Fortunately then, the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra ensures
that every moment in these recordings is worth focusing on.
The balance is excellent, a result perhaps of Manze going for
a moderately sized string section. Vibrato in the strings is
present but minimal, while the woodwind soloists are permitted
a little more wobble. The constrained tones of the horns and
trombones contribute most to the 19th century atmosphere
of the orchestral sound. The SACD sound is excellent, and the
recording really benefits from the warm but clear acoustic of
the Helsingborg Concert Hall.
Something different, then, to add to your Brahms collection.
Manze pursues his aesthetic ideology quite doggedly here, but
never at the expense of the results. He's too much of
a professional to let his scholarship ever stand in the way
of his intuitive musicianship, which must surely have played
just as big a role in the formation of these interpretations.
When you go back to your Karajan, or your Bernstein, or even
your Carlos Kleiber, after hearing this, nothing will seem quite
as inevitable or beyond dispute. Who knows, you might end up
liking those earlier interpretations all the better for hearing
them stand up to a thorough challenging.