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Brahms syms BIS2556
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphonies & Orchestral Works
Anna Larsson (alto), Johan Reuter (baritone)
Male voices of the Swedish Radio Choir3
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2011-2018, Írebro Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS BIS-2556 SACD [4 discs: 291:46]

This four SA-CD set from BIS is a straight re-issue of the individual discs that were recorded between 2011 and 2018. This goes down to the inclusion of the original/unchanged booklets that are in the slim-line cardboard box. Apart from the quality of the actual performances and recordings, the appeal for the prospective purchaser is the reduced cost. The BIS website is offering this set as “four discs for the price of two”. At the point of writing this review the box is available for €30 with the individual original discs at €15. These original releases have been warmly reviewed here on MusicWeb: Symphony 1 ~ Symphony 2 ~ Symphony 3 ~ Symphony 4.

Given the enthusiasm for the discs, I do not propose to review each disc in individual detail. However, by listening to all four in order intensively there are some other observations that become apparent. Important to say from the outset that I have enjoyed listening to this cycle a lot. The discs have been recorded in SACD surround / SACD Stereo and standard CD stereo. I listened to the SACD stereo layer and it really is excellent – an ideally natural and unforced perspective with the Írebro Concert Hall providing a warm and supportive acoustic. There will always be moments where a listener might feel instrumental balances might be different but the sense is this is a choice made on the podium and by the players and not at the mixing desk. Disc 1/Symphony 1 was recorded some five years before the other three using BIS’ in-house engineers and production team. Discs 2-4 date from May 2016 – September 2018 with production taken over by Ingo Petry of Take 5 Music Production. From an audio perspective the sound is very consistent and fine across the sessions.

For many listeners I imagine the concern might be that Brahms Symphonies played by a Chamber Orchestra might sound small or in some way underpowered. In no way is this the case. Again the BIS website mentions that the regular playing strength of the orchestra is 39 but this would imply barely 20 string players in total so I can only imagine that this was expanded for these sessions. Whatever the truth, what is heard is virtuosic, dynamic full bodied playing. For sure this is not the sumptuously ‘deep’ sound of Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic but neither is it trying to be. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard has been a long-time collaborator with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra since 1997 and his vision for these works is clear and consistent. These discs – and I imagine an accompanying concert series – were part of an extended sequence of BIS discs entitled “opening doors” with the aim of throwing new light on familiar works. To that title I would add “changing perspectives and perceptions”. As such this is not a cycle of period-practice performances. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra play on modern instruments using modern performance techniques. Dausgaard does favour antiphonal seating for his violins which is very effective. The style of the performances, especially as applied to tempi and instrumental textures, is quite different from what might be termed ‘traditional’ interpretations. Of course, this was not the first Chamber Orchestra cycle – Sir Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra recorded a set for Telarc back in the late 1990’s. That remains an exciting listening experience with playing just as accomplished as the BIS set and the Telarc engineering allowing the Scottish brass to register thrillingly. Mackerras’ tempi are still swifter than the previous ‘norm’ but Dausgaard is generally quicker still.

The value to me of this approach is not that it is fundamentally “better” or “worse” than previous approaches but simply that it makes the listener question assumptions we all have about the composer and the music. As well as tempi, Dausgaard emphasises dramatic dynamic terracing so for example the subito forte (note – only forte) in the Allegro con spirito finale of Symphony No.2 bursts out quite thrillingly. A case can be most certainly made that Dausgaard’s approach is excessive but goodness me it is dramatic. And do not think Dausgaard is just a speed merchant – Mackerras in this movement is nearly identical in timing terms while Solti in Chicago – a late 70’s cycle which still impresses – is faster throughout this movement. The key with Dausgaard across all the discs is not simply a question of hectic tempi. For sure the opening movements of the first two symphonies are substantially quicker than the norm. However, this translates into a flowing pulse which actually extends Brahms’ long lyrical lines. The opening of Symphony No.2 takes on a lilting “in 1” feel which transforms the character of the music in a way I find very beguiling. Likewise the mobile tempo with the insistent timpani of Symphony No.1 does change the character of doom-laden weight that Klemperer famously finds. In context I find Dausgaard to be wholly persuasive but that is possibly one of the few times across the entire cycle that I find myself hankering for a more overtly ‘traditional’ approach. The cumulative energy and propulsive drive of the conclusion of Symphony No.2 is utterly compelling even if the Telarc engineering for Mackerras allows the Scottish brass including the famous trombone writing to register in an even more viscerally exciting way.

Another feature of these discs is the generosity of the programming. Only one of the four discs dips below the seventy minute mark. Most Brahms symphony cycles focus on the four main works plus the handful of other Brahms orchestral works – the two overtures and the set of Haydn Variations. Alongside all of those BIS include some other genuine treats for the Brahms enthusiast. These include nine of the Liebeslieder Waltzes in Brahms’ own orchestrations in the orchestra only version. Then we get all twenty one of the Hungarian Dances – the three included with the first symphony are in Brahms’ own/familiar orchestrations. The remaining eighteen are spread across the other three discs in new orchestrations by Thomas Dausgaard. I must admit I do not often listen to these dances in their usual orchestral guise but these new versions are infectiously impressive – aided in no small degree by the virtuosity and flexibility of the collective playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. I also like the way these are split across all four discs so they can be listened to in relatively small groups. The remaining two added works are the Alto Rhapsody in a very good version that does not displace the famous Janet Baker/Adrian Boult collaboration and Brahms’ orchestrations of six songs by Franz Schubert.

The intelligent planning and generous playing time of each disc makes for a thoroughly enjoyable Brahms ‘concert’ in its own right. My only relative disappointment was the performance of the Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn. Again Dausgaard prefers forward-moving tempi but for once I would like to have heard him risk a couple of truly slow variations. By maintaining generally faster tempi he reduces the sense of ‘variation’. The quicker variations are stunningly played with superb articulation and clarity across the entire orchestra. Here and elsewhere the BIS engineering captures the particular sound of the contra-bassoon to great effect. But, the initial Thema – Chorale St. Antoni lacks a weight from which the variations can grow. Likewise the famous “hunting horn” Variation 6 feels too light and skips along.

There are no such concerns with Symphony No.3 in part because the very nature of the work – and certainly its outer movements – most naturally chime with Dausgaard’s overall vision. The first movement after all is a true Allegro con brio. Yes Dausgaard is faster in his basic pulse than most of the comparable versions – Mackerras is close and the Telarc recording again favours the bite and rasp of the Scottish brass. Across the symphonies Dausgaard does prefer to take exposition repeats which I have to say I prefer purely from a question of proportion. Personal preference will dictate for listeners whether they prefer the ‘traditional’ approach of indulging a substantially slower [unmarked] tempo for the second subject. I hear Dausgaard as following the grazioso marking with great elegance. Almost at random for comparison I returned to the famous George Szell/Cleveland cycle on CBS/Sony. Szell is not that “con brio” and at the second subject it is a lot slower so by that measure alone Dausgaard appears more obedient to the letter of the score. But of course the Szell is a great and compelling version and to be honest I am glad to know both!

The fillers on this generous disc are very fine too. The liner reminded me that Brahms was the co-editor of the Complete Schubert Edition so clearly he was immersed in the older composer’s music and world. I had never heard these six orchestrations and they are very fine indeed [the BIS liner includes all texts]. As with all the best arrangements, they throw new light onto familiar material. Here they are shared between baritone Johan Reuter and contralto Anna Larsson. Reuter is an especially fine and commanding singer – tonally beautiful but also fully inhabiting the dramatic world of these songs. Brahms underlines this drama with a wide ranging but wholly effective group of orchestrations. There were a couple of points where the juxtaposition of the two voices and the highly Romantic nature of the original texts reminded me of early Mahler song settings. I am not enough of a Mahler expert to know what connections there were but the musical ‘ancestry’ was striking. Dausgaard’s continuing arrangements of the Hungarian Dances provide more excellent variety within the disc’s programme which is completed by Larsson singing the Alto Rhapsody. Again her warm and rich contralto sound suits the work very well and the contribution of the male voices from the Swedish Radio Choir is both beautifully sung and warmly recorded. The liner points to the special and deeply personal place this work has in Brahms’ catalogue. As mentioned before, Larsson does not penetrate the score in the way Janet Baker does – but her performance is one of the great recordings so no shame not matching that. Interestingly Baker/Boult are faster than Larsson/Dausgaard by more than a minute but the sheer variety of Baker’s tone, control of musical line and identification with the text is breathtaking. The entry of the male chorus for the third verse is transcendingly moving.

Recently I listened to the highly praised new recording of the Symphony No.4 from Manfred Honeck and the excellent Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. That is a performance that deserves the praise it has received but it is interesting to compare the approaches of Honeck and Dausgaard. Dausgaard favours an over-arching approach with little nudges of expression and detail along the way. Honeck is more of an interventionist at any given moment. Both are clearly fine conductors with effective visions of this great work so again I am glad to know both. A consistent feature across all these performances is Dausgaard’s attention to sharp accents and the pointing of cross-rhythms. These are less of a feature in the opening movement of Symphony No.4 – the Allegro non troppo marking indicating a more lyrical approach by the composer. For sure Dausgaard’s basic tempo still sits at the faster end of the general range of interpretations but this does not ‘feel’ hasty. Indeed that is another recurring characteristic of these performances – they might well be swift but at no time do they feel rushed or forced. The liner refers to this symphony as Brahms’ “elegiac” – a mood well caught by Dausgaard although perhaps this is an occasion were a Karajan-like loving linger can pay even greater dividends – interestingly these seemingly widely differing conductors offer nearly identical timings for the third movement Allegro giocoso – Honeck is fractionally (and excitingly) quicker than either. The finale is justly famous as one of the great Romantic symphonic movements. Dausgaard is as exciting and energetic as has come to be expected and he allows a greater (and more effective) tempo variation across the passacaglia repetitions than he did in the St. Antoni Variations. Again the Swedish players individually and collectively cover themselves in considerable glory. Possibly the glorious trombone chorale is presented with even more radiance by Karajan in Berlin or quiet grandeur by Klemperer with the Philharmonia but this is still a wonderful passage. I like the way Daugaard breaks the dream with dramatic timpani and shuddering string tremolandi. The last three minutes of the work bring not just this symphony but Brahms’ traversal of symphonic form to an ever-impressive conclusion.

The rest of the disc completes Dausgaard’s arrangements of the Hungarian Dances as well as the Tragic Overture. Both are played with the brilliance that the rest of the set has led the listener to expect. Possibly, the buoyant dances bursting straight in after the symphony is a little jarring but of course that is what the pause button is for! The overture gets a very stormy performance – the liner mentions Brahms considering the title “Dramatic” – which this version most certainly is – Dausgaard is a full minute and a half quicker than Solti for example who in turn is a minute quicker than Karajan. Interestingly Harnoncourt in Berlin is nearly identical to Karajan but without his vision or control. But again all I can say is that in its own right this version from Dausagaard is compelling and convincing.

Indeed “compelling and convincing” would be my summation of the entire set. Enhanced by the dependably fine BIS SA-CD engineering and the skilled and committed playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra this is a set to make a listener fall in love with this wonderful music all over again.

Nick Barnard
Symphony No.1 in c minor, Op.68 (1876) [45:00]
Liebesliederwalzer from Opp.52 and 65 (1869-70) [12:00]
Hungarian Dances: Nos. 1, 3 and 10 (1869, orch.1873) [7:27]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73 (1893) [40:10]
Variations on the St Antoni Chorale, Opus 56a (1901) [17:07]
Hungarian Dances Nos. 5, 6 & 7 (1894) [7.47]
Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80 (1880) [9:27]
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]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98 (1884) [37:40]
Hungarian Dances from WoO1: Nos. 2, 4, 8-9, 17 – 21 (orch. Thomas Dausgaard) [22:08]
Tragic Overture, Op 81 (1880) [12:00]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Song 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]

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