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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op 68 [40:58]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 73 [37:09]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op 93 [35:21]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98 [38:32]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Robin Ticciati
rec. 2017, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
LINN CKD601 [78:09 + 74:07]

I’ve heard most of the recordings that Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Robin Ticciati have made together and I’ve been consistently impressed. Their set of the Schumann symphonies (review) particularly whetted my appetite for this latest release. This Brahms set is something of a valedictory as it’s the last recording project that Ticciati will make with the SCO in his role as Principal Conductor, a position he has occupied since the 2009/10 season. However, in a booklet note he says that these recordings “mark the end of the first chapter of my relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.” That surely signifies an intention for the collaboration to continue on a guest conducting basis and perhaps more recordings will result. We must hope so.

When I received this pair of CDs for review I knew that there could be only one choice for a comparative version: the cycle that Sir Charles Mackerras set down with the SCO in January 1997 which was issued by Telarc (review ~ review ~ review). I invested in these recordings a good many years ago when they were first issued as a 3-disc boxed set, and I esteem them highly.

There are many similarities between the two sets. Both use the same size of string choir (10/8/6/6/4) with the violins divided left and right. Mackerras used “Vienna” horns in F and rotary-valve trumpets and narrow-bore trombones. Ticciati doesn’t specifically mention his trumpets – though I bet he employed similar instruments – but he mentions that the same type of horns and trombones were used. Furthermore, both conductors are sparing in their use of string vibrato, though to my ears it sounds as if Ticciati is even more sparing than Mackerras. The consequence of all this is that we hear “lean” performances in which clarity of texture is very much apparent. Furthermore, the relatively small number of string players on duty means that Brahms’ woodwind and brass parts register with more than usual prominence. Some may feel the results are a bit too much of a good thing. However, on neither set are the strings drowned and I relish the opportunity to enjoy to the full Brahms’ writing for the woodwinds in particular.

When the Mackerras set was issued it aroused great interest since it represented – for the first time on disc, I think – an attempt to recreate the size of orchestra and therefore the sound which Brahms might have experienced in his day – though orchestra sizes varied quite a bit in the late nineteenth century. I believe that the forces that Mackerras particularly had in mind were those of the Meiningen Court Orchestra in the days (1886-1903) when Fritz Steinbach was its conductor. The Mackerras set was a pioneering venture in this regard. Since then, we’ve become more accustomed to hearing the Brahms symphonies played on small-ish orchestras: I think of the recordings by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Thomas Dausgaard.

Before considering the performances, it may be worth saying a little about the respective recordings, especially as both were set down using the same ensemble and forces and in the same venue. We auditioned the Ticciati set in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio in April 2018 and we were very impressed. We found the sound was very realistic and we admired the clarity which engineer Philip Hobbs had achieved. We liked the positive but not too heavy bass and felt overall that the extract from the set to which we listened was very pleasing. Listening on my own equipment at home, I found that the extract in question – the first movement of the Second symphony – was typical of the set as a whole. I found that the sound had admirable presence. The Telarc recording still sounds very good but the listener is given the impression that the orchestra is a bit further away and there is more hall ambience around the sound. I’ve never been in the Usher Hall but I can best describe the difference between the two recordings thus: with Linn you feel you’re in the front stalls, perhaps about 10 rows back from the stage; the Telarc engineers place you about halfway back in the stalls. I mention the difference not in order implicitly to criticise one or other but merely to point out the difference. Both recordings are technically very successful, I think.

Although I’ll make comparisons between the Ticciati and Mackerras performances as I discuss each one, what struck me was the overall degree of similarity between them in terms of basic interpretative approach. There’s very often a high degree of energy in Ticciati’s readings, epitomised by mobile tempi. That might lead you to class the performances as “young man’s Brahms” – the conductor was 34 when he made the recordings. But turn to Mackerras and time and again you find similar energy and vitality. This is “young man’s Brahms” from a conductor who was 71 at the time that he set down his interpretations!

The first movement of the First symphony gets off to a bracing start under Ticciati: there’s no Klemperer-like massiveness here. Interestingly, the younger conductor’s tempo is very slightly broader than the one adopted by his distinguished predecessor, Mackerras and because the Linn recording is a bit closer one is more conscious of the pounding timpani. Both conductors give compelling accounts of the introduction, emphasising that serious business is afoot, yet at the same time both achieve commendable momentum. The Allegro bounds forth like a panther in Ticciati’s hands but Mackerras has just as much vitality. He scores over Ticciati by repeating the exposition. Both performances are powerful and urgent – and both hold the listener’s attention throughout.

Ticciati’s account of the Andante sostenuto is a winning one and he is especially well served by his violin, oboe and horn soloists. However, when I listened to Mackerras I felt that the sound of the SCO is even more persuasive for him – perhaps a little more warming vibrato? - and I found a little more in his phrasing. Ticciati’s performance is very pleasing, though, and the closing section (from 5:47) is radiant, the violin and horn duet falling gratefully on the ear. Moving to the finale, I admired very much the degree of suspense that Ticciati achieves at the start – the slightly grainy sound of his strings is a definite asset here. The great horn solo (2:03) rings out proudly and then, when the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio is reached, the famous broad melody is relished by his strings – and the music has momentum. Mackerras, too, is searching in the introduction and once the main body of the movement is reached his performance is no less spirited. Ticciati has a slight edge, I feel when it comes to injecting fire and drama into those passages that require those qualities although, in truth, I find it hard to choose between the two performances. At 14:22 Ticciati really drives hard for the finish line and when the majestic chorale arrives he doesn’t make too much of a slowing – which I approve of. Mackerras follows tradition by broadening rather more for the chorale. Ticciati’s coda is electrifying.

In the Second symphony Ticciati achieves a nice, easy flow at the start of the first movement, as does Mackerras at a very similar tempo. At 4:48 Ticciati goes straight into the development. I’m always sorry when a conductor ignores the repeat; happily, Mackerras observes it. Though the first movement is primarily a lyrical proposition there are passages where urgency is required and both our conductors are fully alive to this. Despite the lack of that repeat I find Ticciati’s reading of this movement very satisfying – and bracing at times. His cellos are super at the start of the Adagio non troppo. Ticciati unfolds this movement with warmth and suitable expansiveness. In truth, I find it hard to express a preference between him and Mackerras. The Serenade-like character of the third movement is accentuated when the wind are given prominence, as happens in both these recordings. Later, both the present-day SCO and the 1997 cohort play the quicker music with admirable dexterity. The two performances of the finale are almost identically paced and both conductors offer refreshing, effervescent accounts of the music. From 8:04 Ticciati brings the symphony home with an exhilarating burst of energy but when I played the Mackerras performance I found that he is exultant too; indeed, arguably his brass are even more thrilling at the close.

Ticciati’s account of the Third symphony opens with a starburst of energy. This movement is a prime vindication of the use of a reduced string band because it’s wonderful to hear Brahms’ marvellous writing for the woodwind come through with such clarity. Again, Ticciati’s approach is broadly similar to Mackerras’ way with the music – both observe the repeat – and both conductors treat us to super performances. The Ticciati performance of the Andante is warm and easeful. As in the third movement of the Second, the prominence of the woodwind brings out the Serenade-like character of the music. The finale is very well brought off by Ticciati. At 0:47 in his performance the music erupts into life, the tempo urgent and festive. Mind you, Mackerras is no slouch in this movement. I really enjoyed Ticciati’s performance of this swift section of this movement; it’s full of urgency and fire, the SCO responding to him with acuity. At 5:45 he begins the long wind-down to the end and now the music takes on a warm sunset glow. After all the preceding energy, the way Ticciati rounds off this movement is deeply satisfying. Brahms’ conclusion is poetic and richly rewarding and both Ticciati and Mackerras give the listener a fine experience. Some listeners may feel that in these closing pages the slightly more distanced recording on the Telarc set is more appropriate but I listened to the coda with deep contentment in both versions.

Robin Ticciati leads a taut account of the first movement of the Fourth symphony. Arguably, that sense of tautness is accentuated by the ease with which the non-stringed instruments can be heard. This is a sinewy performance, full of strength and urgency. The Mackerras performance is similar in conception but sounds somewhat softer grained: perhaps that’s down to the more distanced Telarc recording. The Andante moderato is finely nuanced in Ticciati’s hands. This performance presents a prime example of the intimacy which he says he sought to achieve in these recordings. That said, the climax (from around 7:00) is not lacking in power. I really enjoyed this account of the movement. Unsurprisingly, Ticciati brings great energy and rhythmic vitality to the short third movement. His interpretation of the passacaglia finale is very impressive. He opens very powerfully, the accents really maximised. The early minutes of this movement are full of thrust: the music-making is very exciting. The bare, melancholy flute variation and the subdued passages which follow are done with delicacy- Mackerras is a fraction broader here - and then, from 5:35 onwards, as the music again picks up intensity, Ticciati ensures that Brahms’ urgent writing is strongly projected. This is a terrific, dramatic reading of the finale.

This, then, is a very fine Brahms symphony cycle from Robin Ticciati and the SCO. It’s a very good way for him to bid au revoir to the orchestra. It’s been fascinating to compare and contrast his performances with those in the distinguished and stimulating Mackerras cycle. As I hope I’ve pointed out, the two cycles are broadly similar in conception though there are many small differences of nuance between them. One thing that is consistent is the terrific playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra both in 1997 and 2017. Their recordings with Sir Charles evidenced the great rapport they had with them and this new set confirms the feeling I’ve had from listening to their previous releases, that the orchestra has an equally strong bond with Ticciati. If I were pressed on pain of dire sanctions to express a preference for one SCO cycle over the other I think Mackerras would get my vote – just – on account of the repeats he observes in the first movements of the First and the Second symphonies, the latter especially, Happily, I don’t have to make that choice: I now have both sets in my collection to return to and enjoy in the future.

Ticciati’s cycle, like the Mackerras performances, gives us an opportunity to experience these symphonies with forces – and therefore orchestral textures – of the sort with which Brahms himself would have been familiar. That by itself wouldn’t be a reason for acquiring the Ticciati set but when one takes into account the freshness and vigour he brings to this music as well as the evident empathy and understanding behind his interpretations then they become a very attractive proposition indeed.

The documentation – essays by the conductor and by Dr Martin Ennis – is very good indeed.

John Quinn


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