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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op.90 (1883) [33:15]
Hungarian Dances from WoO1 (1880) (Orchestrated by Thomas Dausgaard): No.11 in D minor [2:44]; No.12 in D minor [2:37]; No.13 in D major [1:25]; No 14 in D minor [1:50]; No 15 in B flat major [2:40]; No 16 in F minor [2:40]
Rhapsody for Contralto, Male Chorus and Orchestra, Op 53 (1869) [11:57]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Orchestrations by Brahms
An Schwager Kronos, D369 [2:27]
Memnon, D541 [3:35]
Geheimes, D719 [1:42]
Greisengesang, D778 [4:39]
Ellens zweiter Gesang, D838 (first version) [2:50]
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D583 [2:26]
Anna Larsson (alto), Johan Reuter (baritone), Male voices of the Swedish Radio Choir, Swedish Chamber O., Örebro, Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2016-2017, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden. DSD.
BIS-2319 SACD [78:26]

It looks as if BIS are hastening to complete their Brahms symphony cycle with Thomas Dausgaard. Some five years separated his 2011 recording of the Brahms First Symphony with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (review) and their 2016 recording of the Second Symphony, which I reviewed only in March this year. Their traversal of the Third Symphony has now followed swiftly on the heels of the Second.

In many ways the recorded performance of the Second was ample preparation for this version of the Third because, unsurprisingly, it exhibits several similar traits: tempi that are quite fleet; clear, clean textures; athletic and expert orchestral playing. The obvious point of comparison for me was the performance of the Third in Robin Ticciati’s cycle that I reviewed and enjoyed just a few months ago. The Ticciati cycle was issued by Linn on CD and I liked the sound that the engineers produced. However, making A/B comparisons swiftly convinced me that I like the BIS engineering even more. They give Dausgaard the benefit of SACD sound and that gives excellent definition – I listened to the stereo option but there’s also a Surround option. More than that, though, the sound on the BIS disc is warmer, more involving; it’s also admirably clear, as is always the case with this label, I’ve found. I imagine that the Swedish Chamber Orchestra fielded a fairly similar-sized group of players to Ticciati’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra, though I can’t be sure on that point. I don’t withdraw my admiration for the Linn recorded sound but I liked the BIS even more.

Dausgaard launches the symphony with great energy. In the first movement it was immediately apparent that his intention is to keep the music light on its feet. I applaud that, though there were occasions when I just wished he’d introduced a bit more expressive ‘give’ into the music: Ticciati does that better. Dausgaard observes the repeat, I’m glad to say. As the movement unfolded I see I wrote in my notes “fresh-air Brahms”. That’s a credit to conductor and players, of course, but next to that comment is one that mentions how much I was enjoying the airy, clear recording. Dausgaard conducts with consistent purpose and between 10:01 and 10:44 he invests the music with a real burst of fire, which makes the calm ending that soon follows all the more satisfying as a contrast and a kind of musical QED.

In his booklet essay Horst A Scholz devotes most of his notes about the symphony to quoting in extenso Eduard Hanslick’s review of the work’s first performance. That’s interesting to read, though I rather wish Mr Scholz had given us a few more thoughts of his own. Having said that, I noted with interest Hanslick’s comment about the second movement: “It would not be out of place in a Brahms serenade”. That comment is spot-on and it’s borne out by the present performance, which is delightfully engaging. I especially liked the super contributions of the SCO’s woodwind choir. I like, too, Dausgaard’s way with the Poco Allegretto. Here’s a specific case where I like the warmth of the BIS recording, by the side of which Ticciati’s recording sounds somewhat lean. This Swedish performance is flexible and singing and I really enjoyed it.

Dausgaard propels the finale along with great purpose, though he doesn’t drive the music excessively. The SCO gives him playing that’s lithe and athletic and I admire the way in which Brahms’ use of dynamic contrasts is exploited. As the movement progressed, Dausgaard generates genuine excitement; he makes the development really vital. From 5:51 Brahms begins to wind the music down to its radiant close. Dausgaard does these closing minutes very well. However, I think Ticciati brings the symphony home even more satisfyingly because he’s more expressive in these pages. Nonetheless, Dausgaard’s account of the symphony is stimulating and a fine achievement, which makes me keen to experience him in the Fourth.

Brahms famously had a great reverence for music of the past and his German musical heritage; one aspect of this was his admiration for Schubert: as we’re reminded in the notes, he was co-editor of the Complete Schubert Edition. In 1862, at the request of his friend, the baritone Julius Stockhausen, he orchestrated some songs by Schubert. These were not published in his lifetime and, indeed, I’m not sure that they’re often heard nowadays: they were new to me. Five of the arrangements were made in 1862 and a sixth, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus dates from 1871. Here, the songs are shared between Anna Larsson and Johan Reuter.

It’s striking how differently – and, therefore, perceptively - Brahms scores these songs. Two of the songs allocated to Johan Reuter are pretty fully scored but in other cases much smaller forces are used. That’s the case, for example, with Memnon, which Miss Larsson sings. Here the orchestration is, for the most part, quite subdued, especially in comparison with the much grander song that here precedes it. In Memnon I especially liked the gently glowing woodwind parts. Anna Larsson also sings Geheimes for which Brahms uses only strings (minus double basses) and horn. Her third offering is Ellens zweiter Gesang and here the accompaniment is restricted to a quartet of horns and a trio of bassoons. That’s pretty appropriate given that the words are all about a huntsman: the instrumentation is effective, too.

Johan Reuter’s songs are bigger and more imposing. The scoring of Greisengesang accurately reflects the gravitas of Schubert’s song with some telling colours, not least from the bassoons. Reuter opens and closes the group with An Schwager Kronos and Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. In both cases the scoring emphasises and, indeed, reinforces the dramatic qualities in the music. Both songs become more “public” and in the case of Gruppe aus dem Tartarus especially, there’s an operatic dimension to the song. Both singers are on very good form and I found Brahms’ orchestrations to be skilful and full of evidence of empathy with the music. These make a most enterprising and worthwhile addition to Thomas Dausgaard’s Brahms survey.

From Brahms the orchestrator we move to Brahms as orchestrated by another hand with Thomas Dausgaard’s orchestrations of six of the Hungarian Dances. I’ll be honest: these dances aren’t desert island Brahms as far as I’m concerned. However, I thought these orchestrations worked very well indeed. In particular I chuckled at the way in which a very prominent gypsy-like solo clarinet sets the tone for Dance 11, while Dance 16 opens with a solo violin playing with G-string intensity in a way that reminded me of Stéphane Grappelli. The minor-key stretches of this dance smoulder passionately while there’s merriment to be found when the music moves into the major. Overall, I found these orchestrations colourful and attractive.

If the Hungarian Dances represent the lighter side of Brahms then there’s no doubt that the Alto Rhapsody shows him at his most intense and inward-looking. The present performance gets off to a promising start: the searching, introspective orchestral introduction sounds well while Dausgaard and Anna Larsson follow that with a fine account of the first strophe of Goethe’s poem. Miss Larsson sings well – her vocal colouring at the words ‘die Öde verschlingt ihn’ is memorable. From here on, however, doubts begin to creep in. For my taste Dausgaard paces the remaining two strophes two swiftly. The flow he achieves is admirable but I think this comes at the cost – a heavy one – of a loss of intensity and poetry. Furthermore, Larsson, though she sings very well indeed, doesn’t seem to me to dig as deeply as some other singers I’ve heard. At random I selected two other versions and found both preferable. One was the recording made in 1982 by Brigitte Fassbaender and Giuseppe Sinopoli (review). Fassbaender probes the text with particular intensity – she was that kind of singer – and her conductor matches her approach. Some may find their joint approach a bit too intense in which case the DG recording made in the late 1980s by Marjana Lipovšek and Claudio Abbado – long a personal favourite – may be a better comparison (435 791-2). Abbado has the full weight of the Berliner Philharmoniker behind him but even without that advantage his conducting is more searching, I believe, than Dausgaard’s. The Italian allows the music much more space and he plumbs the expressive depths, yet the piece never feels over-interpreted. His soloist is excellent too. I think it’s telling that Abbado, whose performance plays for 13;04, more than a minute longer than Dausgaard’s, reaches the big tune at ‘Ist auf deinem Psalter’ at 10:06, whereas Dausgaard gets there at 6:59. I admired much about this Larsson/Dausgaard performance but I was left wanting more.

Despite my relative disappointment with the Alto Rhapsody I enjoyed this SACD very much. The playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Örebro is excellent throughout and Thomas Dausgaard approaches this music with freshness and has something definite to say about it. Add in excellent BIS sound and you have a most attractive Brahmsian package. I’m keen to hear the fourth and final instalment of this Brahms symphony cycle.

John Quinn

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