Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Liebeslieder-Walzer [orchestrated by the composer from Opp.52 & 65]
Hungarian Dances – Nos.1, 3 & 10 [orchestrated by the composer]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Recorded March 2011 in Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden
CD No: BIS-1756 [SACD] Duration: 65 minutes Reviewed: February 2013
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard – Brahms’s First Symphony, Liebeslieder-Walzer & Hungarian Dances [BIS]
Reviewed by Antony Hodgson
This selection features the Brahms of the 1870s and represents a challenging approach, especially in the case of the Symphony. It is probably true to say that the majority of recordings of Brahms’s First Symphony stress its seriousness and dramatic impact often seeking to do so through weight of orchestral tone and reliance on well-worn traditions which modify Brahms’s instructions regarding tempo. Often the predictability of these interpretations is disappointing – if Brahms had wanted these modifications always to be made at the same points he would have written them into the score. Flexibility of tempo in performance can reveal inner aspects of the music but when this aspect is imposed on exactly the same passage in reading after reading, their impact is blunted.
Thomas Dausgaard’s reading is indeed flexible but it is far from traditional. A swift opening Un poco sostenuto is dramatic but is executed with a light touch; the challenging timpani strokes support the texture clearly and firmly but are not given the thunderous nature evident in many another performance. The bright Allegro incorporates considerable slackening of pace at the second subject yet this seems to stem from musical phrasing rather than wilful imposition. This leads to unwritten yet exciting examples of accelerando in order to return to the basic tempo. The exposition repeat is observed. Ten minutes in, the bass instruments build, starting slowly, gradually and with great drama towards the recapitulation – shades of a similar approach years ago by Hermann Scherchen. Throughout the movement the clarity of the woodwind reveals elements not usually noticeable and this is enhanced by the warm recording in which the stereophonic aural ‘picture’ is very wide. Within the warm acoustic this makes for colourful sound, especially in the calmly-paced second movement where the instruction Andante sostenuto is convincingly obeyed becomes a thoughtful interlude without the obligation of heavy drama which some interpreters favour.
Similarly, drama is only evident at the climax of the subsequent Un poco allegretto and even then it is not strongly underlined. So far, Dausgaard’s light touch is refreshing but the effect of this approach is perhaps best judged in his taking a similar view of the finale where Brahms makes many forceful things happen. The sudden changes of texture are well clarified and I have no problem with the strings sounding much lighter than usual. I should, however, have preferred the main melody not to have accelerated after its initial statement (one of those traditional additions). This also means an inevitable slowing to accommodate the original tempo when the theme returns. On the whole these elements of expressiveness are handled in a poetic way and Brahms’s moments of anger benefit from being swept into the flow of the music rather than being heavily forceful. Unfortunately and surprisingly the music’s current is spoiled near the end by the duty of the worst of those traditional habits when yet-again we hear the return of the great chorale slowed in tempo. This is disappointing because it is uncharacteristic of the interpretation which, even though flexible in tempo, otherwise gives a sense of urgency. There is much in Dausgaard’s reading that is gently revelatory, so it is sad that it fails to completely eschew the dead hand of performing traditions.
To supplement the Symphony with a series of dances is an excellent notion. This version of Liebeslieder-Walzer is rarely heard. In effect it represents an attractive orchestral suite, without Brahms’s first-choice voices. The reconstruction and orchestration stemming from the vocal versions has a complicated history and the informative note by Horst A. Scholz is worth reading carefully. Suffice it to say that this set of nine sections was entirely orchestrated by Brahms although he never approved them for publication, which only happened in 1938. There is delightful clarity and much liveliness of rhythm. Suggestions of other composers flicker through the sequence; the first Waltz anticipates Richard Strauss, the third begins as though it were an inner movement of a Mahler symphony. The selection of Hungarian Dances that follows could not be more apt – the only three that Brahms orchestrated (from the piano-duet originals), so this really is an all-Brahms release, original and satisfying.