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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98 [37:40]
Hungarian Dances from WoO1: Nos. 2, 4, 8-9, 17 – 21 (orch. Thomas Dausgaard) [22:08]
Tragic Overture, Op 81 [12:00]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2018, Írebro Concert Hall, Sweden. DSD
BIS BIS-2383 SACD [72:50]

With this release Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Írebro conclude their Brahms symphony cycle for BIS. I reviewed their accounts of the Second Symphony and the Third Symphony in 2018, finding much to admire in each case. I’ve yet to hear their version of the First Symphony, which was recorded as far back as 2011 (review). I must hasten to repair that omission.

All four volumes in the series have featured performances of Hungarian Dances in orchestral guise. Alongside the First Symphony appeared the three dances which Brahms himself orchestrated; the subsequent instalments have included orchestrations by Thomas Dausgaard. With this final release we get the completion of all twenty-one dances. I must be honest and say that the Hungarian Dances are not Desert Island Brahms as far as I’m concerned. That admission behind me, I must say that Thomas Dausgaard seems to me to have done a thoroughly convincing job with his orchestrations overall, both here and in those which have appeared earlier. In No. 2 in D minor I thought his scoring imparted just the right amount of paprika to season the music. We hear a dashing account of No 8 in A minor, while I admired the range of colourings applied to No 17 in F sharp minor. It seems to me that Dausgaard is both apt and imaginative in his use of orchestral colours in all nine dances offered here and he directs performances that are full of spirit.

His rendition of the Tragic Overture is often taut and urgent. In the brooding central section, the pace of the music may relax somewhat but the inner tension does not. This is a very well-conceived performance and it’s played extremely well by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

The symphony is placed first on the disc and while I’m sure that’s deliberate, I’ve chosen to discuss it last because that feels right. Dausgaard starts the first movement at a pace that seems to me to be well-nigh ideal though, unless I’m much mistaken, he marginally increases the speed around 0:30. In fact, throughout the movement he manipulates the speeds subtly and to good effect. He catches the elegiac nature of the music, but not to an excessive degree: this is not an autumnal reading but, rather, there’s always a sense of purpose. Some listeners may wish for just a fraction more ‘give’ at times; I did so at around 9:00, for example. Overall, though, I found Dausgaard’s way with the music was pretty compelling and the way he conducts the last couple of minutes, swiftly and dramatically, leaves the listener with a very positive final impression.

The Andante moderato unfolds naturally and with seeming inevitability. The SCO’s playing is very fine indeed – the music glows gently. The generally lyrical approach means that the strength of the passage between about 6:00 and 7:20 stands out in strong relief. I loved this performance. The Allegro giocoso bounds along energetically. Because the orchestral forces are smaller than we would hear in a performance from a full-sized symphony orchestra, the timpani part is quite prominent at times, but I found this exciting rather than obtrusive. It’s a very athletic and dynamic performance.

Dausgaard leads a performance of the great passacaglia finale that is dramatic and full of tension. The opening section is thrusting and powerful and then he winds down to the more subdued variations, beginning with the one dominated by the solo flute (2:49). Some performances of that variation can be positively glacial: that’s not the case here but the music sounds withdrawn and pensive; I like it very much. Eventually, at 5:30 the reflective section is over and the music becomes dramatic once more. From here to the end Dausgaard and his players give us a performance that is taut and bracing. The closing pages in particular are really exciting.

There are other, more mellow ways of approaching Brahms’ final symphony but I like and admire very much the bite and drama that Thomas Dausgaard and the SCO bring to the outer movements while the contrasting inner movements are also brought off very well. Superbly played, this is a fine conclusion to their Brahms symphony cycle.

Dausgaard has been chief conductor of the SCO for most of their existence: the orchestra was founded in 1995 and he joined them two years later, stepping down only as recently as summer 2019. This disc might, then, be their final recording project together. If so, it’s a notable way to call time on their partnership. If you’ve been following this Brahms series you should complete it with this fine SACD.

BIS have captured these performances in lovely sound which combines warmth and clarity. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and it seemed to me that the sound showed off both the music and the orchestra to best advantage.

John Quinn



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