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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [44:32]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [43:30]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [36:00]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [37:43]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Paavo Berglund
rec. live, 11-14 May, 2000, Baden-Baden Festival Hall
ONDINE ODE 1229-2T [3 CDs: 44:32 + 43:30 + 74:01]

The idea of playing the Brahms symphonies using a chamber orchestra is not new. Attempting to replicate the size of orchestra that Brahms heard playing his music in Meiningen, Sir Charles Mackerras led the way with his revelatory 1997 Telarc set with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. More recently we’ve had Sir John Eliot Gardiner in equally revelatory live recordings with the period-instrument ensemble, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. There have been other similar ventures although the majority of the performances that you’ll find in the MusicWeb Resource Index for the Brahms symphonies are played by conventional modern symphony orchestras. Here Ondine offer a straight reissue of a set that first appeared, I think, in 2001 (ODE 990 2-T).
For these performances the COE numbers 20 violins, 8 violas, 6 cellos and 4 basses with the usual woodwind and brass forces. That’s virtually identical to the size of the SCO on the Mackerras recordings. Like Mackerras, Berglund’s orchestra uses modern instruments; however, his performances were not recorded under studio conditions but, like Gardiner’s, in concert. The Baden-Baden audience is commendably silent throughout and there’s no applause.
The use of a reduced body of strings means that the woodwind and brass parts come through very easily - though not aggressively so. Listening to these performances I was reminded that quite a number of conductors have doubled the woodwind section when playing Beethoven symphonies the better to balance the woodwind lines against a full-sized modern string section. A similar effect is achieved here by reducing the string band and employing standard-sized wind and brass sections and I like the results. In movements such as the third movement of the First Symphony I was put in mind of the Serenades of Brahms, precisely because the prominence of the wind recalls the scoring of those two underrated works.
I like the way Berglund moves the music forward in the first movement of the First Symphony. The introduction is fairly fleet - it’s certainly not ponderous - and though the liner-notes refer to “a rugged introduction that seems carved in granite” that’s not what I hear. The main allegro is lithe and surging; here, as elsewhere in these performances, Berglund takes the exposition repeat, which pleases me very much. I relished the excellent rhythmic articulation and energy that is on display in this performance and in the development section the vitality of the music making is splendid. There’s a good deal of refined playing in the second movement and the principal oboe and clarinet distinguish themselves, as do the leader and the first horn in the closing pages. The third movement is light and airy, benefiting from the ease with which the winds can be heard. Berglund takes the introduction to the finale spaciously but when the allegro is reached he moves the music on with purpose and the performance is exciting. In the closing section there’s a real drive for the finishing line with no slowing whatsoever for the chorale. This is a bracing performance of the movement and, indeed, of the symphony as a whole.
Berglund’s way with the first movement of the Second Symphony is relaxed, though this doesn’t mean a lack of forward momentum. And how nice, in this movement above all, to be able to hear the wind and horns so easily! This is an objective, clear-eyed traversal. The slow movement is broadly phrased and very well played and I like the reading of the finale in which Berglund takes the ‘con spirito’ injunction to heart; the music has fine energy and the ending is properly exultant.
The Third Symphony is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire to launch and I don’t think Berglund quite brings it off. The music sounds curiously earthbound for the first couple of minutes. Matters soon improve, however and when the repeat is taken the music has the right impetus this time round. One small detail that pleased me was how well the contrabassoon registers at times. Overall, this is a good, dynamic account of the movement. The two middle movements both go well and there’s lots of energy at the start of the finale. The lovely sostenuto ending seems to me to get slower by degrees, though I may be imagining that.
Berglund leads a thrusting account of the first movement of the Fourth while the Allegro giocoso movement is vibrant and joyful with strong rhythmic articulation. The concluding passacaglia is often powerful and penetrating. The flute solo in variation 12 is very eloquent and the woodwind solos that follow are no less good. Towards the end of the movement Berglund and his players bring out all the strength in the music in a way that’s most satisfying.
Throughout these performances the playing of the COE is excellent. Berglund’s direction is sure-footed though some may feel he’s a little too objective in his approach. Nonetheless these are very good accounts of these inexhaustible symphonies and the reduced orchestral forces enable a fine and most welcome degree of clarity, in which task the players are helped by Ondine’s good, clear recordings. I shan’t lightly give up the full-sized orchestral versions of such masterly Brahms conductors as Cantelli, Furtwängler, Giulini, Kempe, Tennstedt or Toscanini. However, smaller-scale performances such as these have much to teach us about these symphonies, especially when they are as well played as here. This is a desirable set which I’m glad I’ve heard and to which I’m sure I’ll return with pleasure.
John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Brahms symphonies