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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in in F major, Op.90 (1883) [38:59]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op.88 (1889) [36:57]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša
rec. 2018, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg, Germany
TUDOR 1743 SACD [38:59+36:57]

Describing Brahms’s sublime Third Symphony is a tricky prospect. It seems the most varied of the four, with some of the angst of the first and fourth symphonies alongside sunny lyricism associated with the second. It is a superbly integrated work whose opening evinces a kind of impetuous power – the two chords that both set the scene for and present the muscular first theme. Well do I remember a performance in London many decades ago, where the gestures of the great Bernard Haitink left no doubt about how he wanted these pages to be played. The opening of the symphony in this performance under Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša seems short on drive, especially when compared to such a performance as that one, or indeed that by Riccardo Chailly on Decca. There are, of course, many ways of approaching such a masterpiece, but here there is too little contrast between the opening and the second subject group, though the second subject is beautifully played and is almost balletic as presented here. The exposition is, quite rightly, repeated, after which the development section is rather more forthright, and with a real sense of mystery where required. With the recapitulation, however, we are back to the mood and ambience of the opening, and Hrůša’s decision to move the tempo forward doesn’t really add much excitement to the passage.

The slow movement is very successful, with the conductor well in command of the music’s changing moods. The opening of the Scherzo, however, is disappointing. Most people will want something with rather more yearning than this: that could be achieved, I think, simply by making more of the crescendo and decrescendo markings in the score. The finale tells a similar story: the fast music at the opening goes well, but Hrůša seems unconcerned to maintain tension in the calmer passages. Many listeners might react well to this, and it is clearly how the conductor feels the work. For this listener an important element in the music is too often absent. If you feel the same way, Chailly is only one of many recommendable performances.

The Dvořák, happily, receives a totally successful and satisfying performance. This symphony, too, traverses many moods, but the smiling, cheerful side is frequently in evidence. Hrůša brings this out very successfully, but he does not short-change the listener when it comes to the more dramatic passages, of which there are many. He plays the opening bars more slowly than the tempo he adopts for the main body of the movement. (In spite of the fact that Dvořák marks only two short passages to be played a little more slowly, and all the rest is Allegro con brio, I have never heard it done any other way.) Hrůša is rather freer with the music’s pulse than some other conductors. He encourages the orchestra to quite assertive playing in the faster passages, and brings out quite markedly the violence that creeps into the development section. The opening of the slow movement is unusually serious and contemplative, but the contrast is beautifully achieved when the sun comes out at the three-minute mark. A lovely solo from the leader embellishes this moment, and events the second time around are even more successfully managed. The scherzo sometimes seems to play itself, so natural and unassuming is Dvořák’s inspiration, but that only masks the skill and insight of the players, and that is very much the case here. If the first statement of the main theme of the finale seems a little matter of fact from the cellos, the remainder of the movement does not lack the energy required, and the long passage before the final coda, where Dvořák, as so often, seems unwilling to let go of his themes and to bid them farewell is highly expressive and satisfying.

The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra has made many fine recordings with its previous Music Director, Jonathan Nott, an outstanding Mahler series in particular. The orchestra has historical Czech connections, and is obviously in very fine shape with its new conductor, Jakub Hrůša. Both works are beautifully recorded, with few signs of the audience’s presence in the Dvořák. There is a booklet in three languages, but French readers will be disappointed that the fascinating interview with the conductor appears only in German and English.

William Hedley

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