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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 3 in F major (1883)
Serenade No 2 in A major (1859, rev 1875)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. August 30 - September 2, 2020, Müpa Budapest Concert Hall, Hungary.
Download of the DSD256 (11.289MHz) surround (five-channel) file from NativeDSD

This recording completes Iván Fischer’s overview of the Brahms Symphonies with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. As producer Jared Sacks states on the Native DSD site, there were additional challenges associated with the making of this album, not least the restrictions arising from the Covid pandemic, which necessitated working around the border closings between countries. In addition, the orchestra members had to be tested for Covid before things could proceed, but, fortunately, all the tests were negative for Covid. I think that circumstances like these couldn’t help but influence the psychology of everyone involved (for the better!) in the making of this release. The optimism and solidarity of conductor and orchestra seem palpable in these performances, although I admit that this idea could simply be a conceit on my part.

Of the previous albums in this Brahms series, I’ve heard only the First Symphony/Haydn Variations coupling - review - and, in both of those works, I felt that Fischer’s renditions were excellent, but, apart from the always wonderful engineering on the Channel Classics label, not really in the very top category of performances. This performance of the Third Symphony is considerably more than that, because it achieves, with one significant exception, a clarity of texture which far too many performances of this work fail to attain – especially in the opening movement. On the other hand, in this same opening movement, the performance shares a characteristic with the vast majority of recorded performances of this work, which is that the off-beat pulses in the viola part, starting in the third bar, do not “speak”, so that one hears this generalized glob of sound in the secondary voices of the texture, rather than the vital interchange between the cellos (on the beat) and the violas (off the beat) which can enliven the whole effect of the movement’s main theme.

As I say, Fischer is hardly the only conductor who fails to bring out the clarity here, and one starts to wonder if Brahms possibly miscalculated by writing for a full symphony orchestra in a way that might make more sense if he’d written the work for string sextet or some other combination of chamber forces where the parts of the overall texture are naturally clearer. Even a recording where the microphones are much closer, such as the old Dorati/LSO performance on Mercury, does not make that viola part audible enough. However, there have been a couple of recordings which DO bring out the viola part in this portion of the work to wonderful effect. I can remember two of these (although there are undoubtedly others): the Mackerras/SCO recording on Telarc, and the Paavo Berglund/COE recording on Ondine (Symponies Nos. 1-4, ODE12292T - review - or ODE9902, both download only). But alas! The Mackerras and Berglund performances are very weak in other ways, especially when it comes to power and corporate tonal reserves — those chamber orchestras just can’t compete in these respects with full symphony orchestras!

I’ve gone off on this tangent because, whenever this type of writing (with the pulsing off-beats) reappears in the movement, Fischer is exemplary. Even as early as bar 19, one can hear the off-beat pulses quite clearly, but that’s partially because Brahms has given the violas some help, with the second violins pulsing these off-beats along with the violas. Later in the movement, in the development section, Brahms makes it easier still to hear these off-beat pulses as he adds the first violins to this part of the subsidiary texture at bar 101, while the first horn plays its glorious, wide-spanning main line. At this point, Fischer is once again exemplary. (But then, so too are some other conductors, now that Brahms has given them still more help here.)

Although not quite the speed demon which Chailly is in this movement (in his Leipzig recording, Symphonies Nos. 1-4, etc., now 4787471, budget price: Recording of the Month), Fischer is still on the faster side of the ledger compared with most conductors I checked. Listeners will have their own views about tempo, but I’m as comfortable with Fischer’s tempo in the first movement, as I am with those of such mystics as Giulini, in his 1990 VPO performance on DG (Presto DG CD 4316812), and Sanderling, not with the Dresden Staatskapelle, but with the Berlin SO, originally on Capriccio (Symphonies Nos.1-4, C10600), but reissued on other labels. (As an aside, I note that Celibidache, on his Munich recording on EMI, now in Warner 9029558154, 49 CDs, not only adopts an unexpectedly quick tempo in the first movement, but also doesn’t take the exposition repeat, thereby “beating” Fischer by over four minutes, other conductors by over five minutes, and Giulini and Sanderling by over six minutes!)

In the second movement, I feel that Fischer is actually too fast. The meter is indicated as common time, but Fischer produces the impression that the indication is actually a moderately slow cut (all breve) time. I think I know why he (and a fair number of other conductors) take this approach: they figure that it will help the flow of the music and prevent it from becoming stuck on the beats. And indeed it does just this, but I believe that it also undermines the music’s restful character and does not provide enough contrast with the similarly moderate third movement. Even Toscanini (in his NBC recording) took over a minute longer in this movement, the better to evoke its tranquility and repose (not to mention that the sublime codetta needs all the expansiveness it can get!).

Fischer is more easy-going in the autumnal third movement. This is the shortest movement in the symphony, and the tempo should not be pushed (in the manner of the Ashkenazy/Cleveland recording on Decca 4335482, download only), or else it can’t maintain its stature in comparison.

Fischer’s tendency towards dynamism is best suited to the finale, where he and his orchestra maintain textural clarity and lucid articulateness amid the multiple surges of passionate intensity. The striking nostalgia of the movement’s coda is all the more apparent in view of the vigorous and forceful energy which has preceded it in this performance.

The A-major serenade, with its unusual scoring of winds together with a string section which contains no violins, lacks the grand, sweeping gestures of the composer’s Symphonies, but, in a strange sort of way, it sounds more spontaneous and less calculated than its great symphonic brethren do. Fischer’s tempos throughout its five movements are in line with those of the majority of conductors who have recorded this work, and the BFO’s playing is delicious in its folksy characterizations. My only trouble with this new recording is that, ever since I heard the Masur/LGO Philips recording (available in quad on the Pentatone label), with its slower tempo in the first movement, all other conductors sound as if they’re hustling things along too much in this section. Otherwise, I love this new Fischer recording!

I was interested to see on the Native DSD site that, in contrast to the DSD masters which comprise the bulk of the Channel Classics catalog, the master for this recording is shown as DXD (a form of PCM) rather than DSD. If possible, I always like to review a recording in the same format (or as close thereto) as its master, but, in this case, I didn’t see the DXD notice until after I’d already requested the DSD256 download. As I suggested in a previous review, it’s probably not a significant difference in any case when you’re living with this stratospheric level of resolution, and, in any case, the result is as fine in terms of range and beauty as we’ve come to expect from Channel Classics, especially in the recording’s splendid 5-channel incarnation.

Overall, even though I personally don’t agree with some of Fischer’s interpretive decisions, there are still some magnificent moments on this new album (especially in the Serenade), and the Channel Classics engineering is once again outstanding.

Chris Salocks

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