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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68 (1876) [46:28]
Tragic Overture in D minor Op.81 (1880) [13:22]
Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73 (1877) [40:45]
Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 (1883) [35:26]
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1884-85) [42:24]
Variations on a theme by Haydn Op.56a (1873) [19:18]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.16 (1909) [17:26]
Variations for Orchestra Op.31 (1928) [21:07]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Funeral Music for String Orchestra (1958) [14:08]
Livre for Orchestra (1968) [18:19]
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Günther Herbig
rec. Christuskirche Berlin, Germany 1978/9 (Brahms), 1982/3 (Lutosławski and Schönberg)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300911BC [4 CDs: 269:43]

I cannot imagine a collector new to the music of Brahms or his four symphonies selecting this set of recordings, now nearly forty years old, over the numerous collections old and new from artists of nominally greater stature than those presented here. This set has been available individually and collectively pretty much throughout that time although this new incarnation claims to be the first remastering from the original tapes in twenty years. I see it is being offered online for around £19.00 for the set (four discs plus a substantial 'bonus' disc) so it does not even have the attraction of being a super bargain.

So is there really a place for such a set? My answer would be a resounding yes! The important thing is to approach this as very much as Günther Herbig’s set in close collaboration with the excellent Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester (renamed the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in 2006). Certainly that is how the liner treats things - the main essay is titled ‘Retracing the distinctive sound of the BSO’ - literally without one word about the Brahms Symphonies. Curiously, the works on the ‘bonus’ disc by Lutosławski and Schönberg do merit a music-specific article. But this article about the orchestra and its relationship with Herbig is both interesting and revealing. Until reading this I did not realise quite how the orchestra was a ‘child’ of the political upheavals in Berlin - especially in the early 60’s with the building of the Berlin wall. As is well-known, post-War Berlin became a place where the opposing political ideologies of East and West sought to demonstrate their own pre-eminence. Hence the proliferation in Berlin of two (at least) of everything from zoos to opera houses, main line train stations and, of course, orchestras. So if the West had the Berlin Philharmonic the East had the Berlin Symphony. What I had not known was that the over-night building of the wall stranded many of the Symphony players in the West. This need for instant replacements meant that through the 60's the orchestra not only had the youngest age of any East German orchestra, but also had groups of players who had all been taught by the same teachers in Berlin. By definition, this gave rise to a consistency of sound - especially across the strings - as well as an orchestra whose personality was evolving at the same time.

All of which means, I think, that there is a unique sound to this orchestra at the time of these recordings. I have always enjoyed the tonal lustre of the best German orchestras and time and again these recordings reveal those virtues. Most strikingly, there is a very consistent approach both technically and interpretatively across the cycle. The chief glory of the orchestra is the strings. The upper strings in particular have a superb suppleness yet unity of attack that is a joy to anyone who appreciates the skill involved. This is not the saturated weight of sound of their colleagues just over the Wall, this is a more sinewy muscular sound. In part this is due to the recordings which are good and warm belying their church location but without the sheer depth that the more famed Philharmonic produced at much the same time. But this brings greater clarity to orchestral textures so the basses can be heard digging into their strings gratifyingly. Another joy is the unforced beauty of the brass - the blending of their tone is effortlessly excellent. The woodwind are strongly individual as soloists but again beautifully blended as a woodwind choir. Principal flute and oboe have gorgeously warm sounds which contrast nicely with the woodier clarinet and bassoon. Try the flute variation in the finale of No.4 - the Berlin SO player has a very similar tone to James Galway's playing from much the same era in the Philharmonic - I wonder if that was a conscious sound-alike?

This is not majestic, grandstanding playing - so perhaps some might feel the trombone-led peroration at the end of the 2nd Symphony is not as overwhelming as it is elsewhere. Undoubtedly that is true, but in its place is a greater sense of Brahms in the continuum of German Romantic music - this music leads on from Schubert and Schumann rather than reaching forward. At any given point Herbig could be termed middle-of-the-road; no tempi are that radical, no musical choices that extreme or surprising. But the cumulative effect of the numerous felicities of phrasing or innate musicality gives each performance a remarkable sense of unity and unfolding growth until the inevitable closing bars. In many ways Herbig’s choices do hark back to an earlier age; phrases are pointed by a natural but marked rubato which allows tempi to relax towards the end of a paragraph and then push on again thereafter. Clearly none of these choices are marked in the score and many may now feel they are old-fashioned. Indeed they might well be but to my ear they work in a most engaging way.

Herbig does not observe the exposition repeat in any of the first three symphonies - there is none in No.4 anyway. An idea of his quite held tempi is that his 1st movement of No.1 takes 14:23, Mackerras with the SCO, taking the repeat is only just over a minute longer. The well-regarded Mackerras reading is certainly dynamic but next to Herbig I wonder if it is not too impatient, with the drama forced. Occasionally, at the first listen, I did wonder if a basic tempo was too slow. The opening of Symphony No.3 was a case in point; was Herbig's tempo true to the Appasionato marking? But he so skilfully manages the flowering of this movement that by the time the development is reached there is a real sense of a driving agitato that is not a product of speed alone. I would have liked the Allegro Giocoso of the 4th Symphony to have greater athletic energy than here but that is balanced by a finale in the same work that allows this remarkable passacaglia to bring the entire cycle of symphonies to a very satisfying conclusion indeed. I love the way Herbig allows the tempo to relax in the trombone led chorale which is one of the highlights of a group of works heavy with highlights. Here Herbig does not force the phrasing making it over-mannered, instead it becomes a passage of gentle reflection for the trombones and horns in the mid-point of the movement before building to the drama of the closing pages. Again, some may feel the tempo slackens too much, in other hands I might well agree but here there is such a sense of logic and organic growth that criticism falls away.

The three Brahms discs are completed with a good Tragic Overture and a very good set of the Haydn Variations - the latter allowing each section of the orchestra to shine from the lovely woodwind theme through to the hunting horns of the 6th Variation. But again the greatest credit goes to Herbig and perfect pacing of the work. The absence of the Academic Festival Overture seems to be for the simple reason Herbig did not record it. All of the other performances offered here can be found in various incarnations and couplings - but I have not seen any Herbig-led versions of the ‘missing’ overture.

Overall the sound of these is good vintage analogue - occasionally lacking in the warmth and depth favoured by say Decca engineering from the same time this chimes with the interpretative style - not overtly ‘demonstration’ quality but discreetly effective. There are several sets that offer a similar centrist view of these works. Wand, Skrowaczewski, Janowski, Sanderling all spring to mind - in each case the detail is different but they all spring from a similar essential style and it is one I enjoy. Certainly, when backed up with playing of the calibre heard here it is very hard not to be won over by music-making of such understated quality.

A major bonus comes in an unexpected 4th disc of major works by Lutosławski and Schönberg. This is not quite such an aberration in programming terms as you might first expect. Schönberg’s admiration of Brahms is well known and hearing his work straight after the symphonies gives you a sense of the journey the younger composer travelled. Also, it is rather wonderful to hear these works played with such skill and conviction. Of course the Op.31 Variations were famously recorded by Karajan and the Philharmonic about a decade before these performances and that recording still beguiles by the sheer sensuousness of the Philharmonic’s sound. But all the skills that were apparent in the Brahms are on display here - fantastically tight and articulate strings, characterful wind and incisive brass. If the Schönberg is good the two Lutosławski works are superb. I am not sure I have heard a better performance of the Trauermusik. For this piece for strings alone the engineers have brought the strings slightly closer to the microphones giving an extra bite and edge to the playing that is wholly appropriate - the combination of weight of tone and complete unanimity is remarkable and makes the piece a profoundly involving and moving listen. Likewise, the Livre which completes the disc and the set – which is impressively played, if without the lasting impact of the preceding string piece. The Berlin Classics presentation is rather dour. A stiff black box containing the discs each in a simple cardboard sleeve. The back of the sleeve gives track information and limited recording information. As mentioned before the very interesting liner essay about the orchestra is in German and English only.

So probably not your first set of Brahms symphonies and probably not the last word in the Brahms symphonies but if you are looking for an overview which makes a virtue out of superb musicianship and an essentially traditional approach there is much to enjoy here.

Nick Barnard



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