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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 73 (1877)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70 (1884-5)
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jakub Hrůša
rec. 2019/2020, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg, Germany
TUDOR 1742 SACD [45 + 39]

This enticing release is a further addition to the ongoing series twinning symphonies by Brahms and Dvořák, a theme validated by the kinship between both the composers and the cross-fertilisation of their styles. The orchestra and conductor here have since 2016 been producing a stream of admirable concerts and releases, such as their recent recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and its variants.

This is a decidedly relaxed and lyrical account of Brahms’ Second Symphony, matched only in spaciousness by Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden, whose tempi are very similar but still only marginally slower than previous admired exponents such as Stokowski. In fact, that leisureliness applies only to the first movement; most conductors take four or five minutes less than Hrůša but there is no sense in his which chosen speed drags; the reprise of the “lullaby” theme just over fifteen minutes in is warm and impellent – and the prominent timpani lend the music power and gravitas. Otherwise, there isn’t much variation of pace amongst the many and various celebrated recordings of this most bucolic of Brahms Symphonies; the cool beauty of the sinuous, melancholy main theme of the Adagio is balanced by the depth of the lower strings’ pizzicato passages and there is much lovely woodwind playing, all splendidly defined and distinct in perfectly engineered sound. Hrůša’s deliberate manner captures the tragic undertone of the coda, imparting a new dimension of grandeur to the music. The third movement, by contrast, is predominantly light and skipping, suggestive of a rustic dance mostly untouched by the shadows of the preceding two movements and yet again, the dynamic range and excellent balance of the recording permit the listener to hear the pizzicato cellos clearly. The joyous, explosive finale, too, is much enhanced by the volume and clarity of the timpani’s interventions, building to a thoroughly satisfying paean, banishing shadows. The sumptuous but streamlined sonority of the Bambergers here is massively impressive – the best of a truly great German orchestral sound.

The ominous, growling opening of Dvořák’s Seventh is perfectly realised and Hrůša immediately reveals his mastery of the form through the application of subtle rubato in his phrasing without the musical thread going slack. Again, lovely woodwind playing strikes a pastoral note, recalling the Brahmsian inspiration to the work but the darker, denser, “Germanic” orchestration also underlines that link; this is a lilting, songful and unhurried account which never loses the skein of disquiet lurking beneath the dancing, three-quarter-time melodies and the faintly disturbing, mysterious conclusion with distant horns intoning gnomically leaves the listener in ambivalent mood, paving the way for the similarly enigmatic Poco adagio. As with the first movement, Hrůša presides over relaxed, flowing playing underpinned by a prominent bass line and a solid, rhythmic stability modulated by judicious use of rubato and rallentando. The stately grandeur of the music is maximised, ensuring that Dvořák does not come across as just a lightweight, jolly tunesmith.

The Scherzo likewise emerges as something more martial and substantial when played with such sonority, but there is charm a-plenty, as when the main theme is reprised five minutes in, with a Viennese-style hesitation then a leaning into the tune in a manner redolent of a New Year’s Day Johann Strauss number. The finale is real tour de force, maintaining the underlying weightiness of Hrůša’s conception without ever sounding ponderous and culminating in an imposing peroration.

Last year, I gave the Presto re-issue of Myung-Whun Chung’s Seventh (review) a warm welcome but this is even more satisfying in terms of both sound and execution.

This is attractively packaged in a dark green cardboard digipack with colour and black and white photos, trilingual notes and an interview with the conductor by German musicologist and critic Wolfgang Sandner, who describes the unusually warm and friction-free friendship between the two composers whose works make a welcome match for this release, especially, as Sandner remarks, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony is regarded as the most “Germanic” of his mature works. He also discusses the manner in which they married traditional scholasticism with instinctual innovation. There is also an interesting discussion in the interview regarding the extent to which composers belong to national schools and a recognition that English audiences have long been more eclectic in their acceptance of a range of compositional styles.

Ralph Moore

Published: November 8, 2022

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