It is not unknown for a chamber orchestra to perform Brahms’s Symphonies and this Scottish ensemble has previously recorded them with Charles Mackerras. Claimed advantages include clearer definition of woodwind articulation. In this case the composer’s characteristically rich blending of those instruments adding small-bore trombones and late-Viennese horns does result in a combination of detail and warmth. This full blend is particularly evident in the final thirty bars of the Third Symphony. This rich sound, enhanced by the spacious acoustic of Usher Hall, is ideal for such gentle music; it does however bring in to question the modest number of strings because their subtle allusion to the opening theme of the Symphony is entirely lost.
There are times during these accounts when Brahms’s full-blooded outbursts do not make their full dramatic effect. This tendency is of no great concern in Symphony 3 however; in fact the opening is particularly bold and the velvet tone of the SCO is then used to good effect. Robin Ticciati does go along traditional lines by his relaxed treatment of the second subject although the exposition repeat (the only one he observes) moves on a little more at this point. This achievement of relaxation without hampering forward movement is particularly evident in the Poco allegretto and the pushing forward at the central section is an acceptable idea while the Finale generates much excitement as it builds to the climax.
The impact of the woodwinds is certainly felt in Symphony 1’s introductory Un poco sostenuto and the Allegro enters briskly with strong rhythm but Ticciati does revert to notions by holding back the thoughtful continuation. Just after the start of the development section there is a bassoon solo – is that strange slow trill three bars after letter F a new discovery? Another subjective idea is to accelerate towards the recapitulation: effective, but Brahms does not require it. The Andante sostenuto is graceful and incorporates a beautifully-played violin solo but the Finale is a little wilful. Here the clearly recorded timpani have moments of surprising modesty and the noble main theme increases tempo as it proceeds. At the end, shortly after Brahms’s indication of a faster tempo, it is a pity to relax for the chorale although Ticciati’s modification of pulse is only minimal.
Perhaps flexibility is more acceptable in Symphony 2 although it should be remembered that Brahms gives very few indications of alteration of pace. Expressive shaping of themes is a particular strength of Ticciati’s approach – even if the fourth note of the opening phrase by cellos and double basses is tapered away and buried beneath the horns, and at bar 20 the falling violin phrase that introduces the main theme is barely audible. In all Ticciati is convincing and there is certainly no objection to his allowing a hint of portamento here and there – in fact the only unconvincing moment is the reduction of speed for the second subject of the Finale but the coda is very exciting.
Small concerns about tempo do not arise in Symphony 4 despite a few moments of indulgence in middle of the Finale which is otherwise admirably regular in pulse –essentially so. This is a truly symphonic interpretation, the steady striding of the opening movement’s ending continues into the easy flow of the Andante moderato enhanced by the wisely judged gap between the two. The Allegro giocoso is delightfully vigorous, busy woodwinds are splendidly detailed and, as throughout the work, timpani have slightly greater presence than elsewhere.
This is imaginative Brahms, not in the powerful Horenstein/Klemperer/Toscanini style but with a conviction of its own.