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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73 (1877) [40:10]
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56a (1873) [17:07]
Hungarian Dances Nos 5-7 from WoO1 (1869) (orch. Thomas Dausgaard) [7:42]
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 (1880) [9:27]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Írebro/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2016, Írebro Concert Hall, Sweden. DSD.
BIS BIS-2253 SACD [75:56]

This is second Brahms disc by Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Írebro. As long ago as 2011 they set down the First Symphony. Unfortunately, that recording passed me by, but I see that my colleague David R Dunsmore liked it (review).

The Second Symphony is the opening item on the disc so when you first play it you may be disconcerted, as I was, by Dausgaard’s swift tempo for the first movement. The last recording of this symphony that came to me for review was part of the complete cycle by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony (review). The two conductors’ approaches to this movement could scarcely be more different. Nelsons is relaxed and romantic, setting a fairly steady tempo at the outset and then frequently easing back for expressive nuances. Dausgaard is significantly swifter: I estimate his speed at ca 120 crotchets per minute whereas I measure Nelsons at about 86 to the minute. Dausgaard doesn’t ignore points at which the tempo should be relaxed but his tempo modifications are less obvious than are Nelsons’.

The first time I played the disc I must admit that I was disconcerted by Dausgaard’s fleet-of- foot approach to this movement – the marking is, after all, Allegro non troppo - but on repeated listening I found much to enjoy in his way with the music. To my ears, he imparts freshness to the music and at times there’s also urgency. He moulds the music less obviously than Nelsons does but, depending on your taste, you may think that’s no bad thing. Dausgaard wins bonus points from me for observing the exposition repeat – Nelsons does not – and even so he takes just 17:23 to play the movement; Nelsons, without the exposition repeat, takes 16:18. Even though I warmed to Dausgaard’s approach there were several instances when I regretted that he did not ease back more. However, from about 15:00, just before the important horn solo, I admired his way with the music very much. He manipulates the pace of the horn solo expertly, pressing ahead for urgency and then relaxing again, and he brings the movement to a very satisfying conclusion.

I’ve dwelt on the first movement quite a bit because it’s the most controversial aspect of this performance. The Adagio non troppo is rather more “traditional” and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra makes the music sing in a most appealing fashion. Even here Dausgaard is not reluctant to make the music urgent when required – as in the animated passage between 3:46 and 4:52, for example – but overall, he is properly respectful of Brahms’ lyrical vein. There’s grace and charm in the third movement – here the SCO’s woodwinds really shine – while the Presto trio sections are suitably dashing. Dausgaard’s core tempo for the finale is swift but by no means excessively so. He and his players invest the music with high spirits and energy. The performance has great clarity in the swift passages while the expansive episodes are very well done. Dausgaard drives the closing pages (from 8:16) thrillingly and the very end of the symphony is as exultant and exciting as I can remember hearing.

The other major work on the disc is the ‘Haydn’ Variations. One small detail – but a very important one – is that BIS allow a good interval between the symphony and the Variations. That’s the sort of attention to detail that not all labels achieve. The performance of the Variations that follows the pause is a very fine one. The presentation of the Theme itself is expertly shaded. The following variations – all separately tracked – are very well done. Particularly noteworthy are the graceful account of Variation III, the lovely lyrical lines of Variation IV, and the delicacy with which Dausgaard and the SCO deliver Variation VII. I enjoyed this performance very much indeed.

The disc is completed by a spirited reading of the Academic Festival Overture and three of the Hungarian Dances in what I presume are fairly recent orchestrations by Thomas Dausgaard himself. The Hungarian Dances are not Desert Island Brahms for me, I’m afraid but these orchestrations seem effective and the standard of performance is as high as in the other pieces on this disc.

I wonder what the size of the orchestra was for these performances. I presume the string section was smaller than we would hear from a full symphony orchestra such as Andris Nelsons’ Boston orchestra. That, I’m sure, will account for some of the fine clarity of texture that’s a feature of these performances. The other factor will be the excellent BIS sound. I listened to this disc as an SACD and was delighted with the results.

This is a fine Brahms disc. Thomas Dausgaard’s approach to the Second Symphony is at times controversial but I came to appreciate the freshness of his performance very much. The playing throughout the disc is out of the top drawer and BIS’s presentation is in the best traditions of the house. Some five years separated Dausgaard’s recordings of the First and Second symphonies. I hope he and the SCO won’t delay so long in bringing us their take on the other two symphonies.

John Quinn

Previous review: Richard Hanlon



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