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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 (1883) [39:29]
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [39:31]
Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti
rec. live 23 and 24 August 2015, Hamer Hall, Melbourne (No.3); 27 and 29 October 2013, Sydney Opera House (No.4)
Reviewed as a digital download
Also available as a CD (4819892)
ABC CLASSICS 4819890 [79:00]

Over the last few weeks I have been enjoying delving into releases from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s own classical label and I have frequently found myself wondering why these recordings aren’t better known, especially in the UK where I am based. This present disc is a case in point. It was released in 2020, yet as far as my limited abilities with the internet can tell, it hasn’t been reviewed outside of Australia. This is a great pity, as it is a real stunner.

This is very much lightweight Brahms on a diet, using only about 50 players. This puts it directly in competition with the likes of Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Nos. 1-4 Linn CKD601 - review - review - review) and Riccardo Chailly with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Decca 4787471: Recording of the Month - review of earlier release). For admirers of those two fine sets, I can confidently state that this present recording is at least as good if not, dare I say it, even better.

I came to this recording off the back of reviewing releases from B Records’ superlative complete Brahms chamber music project (I’m sure readers of Musicweb are sick of me banging on about how good those recordings are but they really deserve checking out). What struck me immediately listening to Tognetti and his marvellous band is how much closer the world of the symphonies is to that of the chamber music than I had ever previously suspected.

This is anything but skimmed milk Brahms. The texture may be clearer, allowing a myriad of details in the inner parts to become audible, but it does not lack guts. Listen to the sobbing, gut-wrenching entry of the strings near the start of the finale of No.4. This is string playing of a particularly high order and utterly belies any notion that smaller forces must mean a chaste classical view of these works. Conversely, Herbert Blomstedt’s developing cycle of the Brahms symphonies on Pentatone shows that the big band approach has never meant stodgy textures when in the hands of a sensitive conductor.

The opening of the Third Symphony shows that the richness lies in the orchestration, not the numbers of performers. The double bassoon in particular gives a deep, dark bedrock to the sound, which banishes any fears of this opening sounding anaemic. I hadn’t previously noted that the tempo marking for this movement is Allegro con brio, and Tognetti and the ACO bring plenty of fire as well as lyricism and grandeur. By contrast Iván Fischer’s admirable account with his Budapest players sounds a little well mannered - review. My benchmark in this symphony is Furtwängler - review - and with him you get fire aplenty.

Time and again listening to this recording I was reminded that Tognetti is a string player. One place where it really tells is in the slow movement of the Fourth. If the melodic lines, particularly those for the strings, don’t flow across the bar lines this music can become a bit of a plod. Tognetti’s string players most definitely flow and throughout they play for their lives. Dip into this movement about 7:40 and listen to the utter conviction they bring to this rhetorical sequence that can sound like a lifeless exercise. Let the music run on and the listener is rewarded with a properly sung return of the second subject group. The very end has a chamber music delicacy and spontaneity that is treasurable.

There is a virtually Mendelssohnian spring in the step of the scherzo of the Fourth, reminding us that for all Brahms’ attempts to pass himself as an old fogey, he was only in his 50s when he wrote this music. I loved the call-and-response playfulness between the sections of the orchestra, which made me realise how many bored-sounding orchestras I have heard in this piece.

Tognetti’s approach to the finale of the Fourth is, as I have already indicated, pretty gutsy. He is not afraid to let his trombones blare balefully, yet somehow they never unbalance the rest of orchestra. The strings play like the Furies from the Oresteia, which I think is how it should be, since Brahms clearly has high tragedy in mind in this movement. Pacing is key here if the end is to produce its full tragic effect and I found Tognetti’s combination of weight and speed highly convincing. The closing pages are immensely exciting. The approach here is more Toscanini than Furtwängler and manages to be even more thrilling than the Italian maestro right at the end.

Listening to these ABC recordings I have been impressed by their technical quality even listened to, as I did, in mp3 format. They really capture the diverse colours Tognetti conjures from these scores and they can cope with the biggest, most congested climaxes with ease.

I won’t go through every movement in detail but content myself with saying that every one brings similar felicities, whether it is the terrific head of steam that gets worked up in the finale of the Third or the wistful regret in the descending figures at the end of the slow movement of the same symphony. My list could go on and on.

But what of the competition? In the Third I think Tognetti has all the virtues of Ticciati but brings something extra – more fire, more richness without sacrificing clarity. I also preferred Tognetti’s more natural phrasing of the first subject to Chailly’s surprisingly jerky way with it. As for the Fourth, whilst Ticciati’s approach is technically interesting, it feels a little fussy and small scale in terms of vision next to Tognetti. Both of these rivals offer great recordings of these symphonies but again and again I found myself preferring the Australians.

Few areas of the catalogue are as oversubscribed as the Brahms symphonies, yet I now find myself in the delightful position of waiting impatiently on two emerging cycles – the Blomstedt from Leipzig and, fingers crossed, this one from Tognetti and his magnificent players.

David McDade

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