Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Paavo Berglund
CD No: ONDINE ODE 990-2T (3 CDs) Duration: Reviewed: July 2001
Brahms - The Four Symphonies
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Recorded live in May 2000, in Baden-Baden, the smaller size of the COEs string section approximates to that known to be the Meiningen Orchestras playing-strength when it premiered Brahmss Fourth Symphony in 1885. Slimline Brahms isnt new to CD; Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra presented something similar a few years ago [TELARC CD-80450].
Starting with the Fourth introduces Berglunds Brahmsian credentials, which hold forth throughout the set. Using less than full strings shouldnt suggest anything undernourished; the string sound is radiant, the playing lithe and buoyant. Such forces ensure that woodwind and brass and timpani - achieve equal billing in the mix. Time and time again, one hears details not as subsidiary or incidental but as integral to the orchestral fabric and harmonic argument.
This could also be said of another revealing Brahms cycle, that from Harnoncourt and the Berlin Philharmonic [TELDEC 0630-13136-2], but Harnoncourt is not so integral, so phrasally economical as Berglund, whose sense of tempo and line is well-nigh faultless.
Hearing this oh-so familiar music given a Berglund health-check all flab and excess weight removed does send one thinking of much-loved cycles - Boult, Klemperer, Szell, Ansermet (the latter available in Japan), or to a recent favourite, Horst Steins Bamberg cycle (Koch), and not forgetting the endlessly fascinating Celibidache traversals in Stuttgart and Munich (DG and EMI respectively) to wonder how these more traditional readings will now fare. Pretty well, I imagine, for each has their particular insights and convictions. Yet, Berglund has turned tradition on its head.
One must also mention Neville Marriners Hanssler cycle with his Academy of St Martins; these spick-and-span readings do not compete with the myriad details and colours that Berglund finds; in turn, Berglund is a more mellifluous guide than Mackerras whose rather choppy and blustery way is too agitated (although a different version of Symphony Ones slow movement gives his set added interest).
Berglunds grace and lyricism do not eschew import or gravitas. Tempi are judiciously forward-moving, though without haste or pressure. Throughout one is struck by the liberation of wind and brass parts and, partly because violins are fewer, how distinct the inner cello and viola parts are; and vice versa, of course, when they have the main idea.
A world-away from string-dominated and portentous Brahms, Berglund knows just how to lean expressively on a phrase without hindering its flow; theres never any dragging of heels or indulgence. Nor is anything underplayed; Berglunds sense of the whole is unimpeachable.
Berglunds settled and focussed Brahms is further illuminated by having antiphonal violins their dialogue is beautifully balanced with woodwind entering into this conversation with equally important comment, wonderfully phrased try the flute variation in No.4s finale (from 303); the clarity of string parts is nicely demonstrated by urgently pulsating lower strings at the opening of No.3, the middle movements of which emerge as songs without words, lovingly shaped. When Berglund makes use of non-vibrato strings the effect is telling dusky and moonlit timbres.
While noting the rhythmic vitality and clarity of the timpani in the, here ebullient, scherzo of No.4 (from 449) one of many such ear-grabbing balances the opening of No.2s slow movement brings another revelation. Without losing the cello tune, Berglund leads the ear to trombone, bassoon and oboe counterpoint usually overlooked. The finale is joyous.
Berglund observes the first movement repeats indicated in 1-3 (Im not usually keen on No.1s, but Berglund convinces its need) and he joins a select band of conductors Eduard van Beinum, Boult and Celibidache for example who allow the mottos triumphant return in No.1s finale coda to be in tempo (at 1514); no ham, Berglund just lets it happen.
Theres nothing pedantic about Berglunds approach; indeed, what emerges is freewheeling and spontaneous - and deeply-considered the COE spirited and sensitive partners. These organic and detail-studded performances are revelations, really quite wonderful, crisply and vividly recorded, and are enthusiastically recommended for both their intrinsic qualities and for interceding into what may be our misconceptions about Brahms and his music.