Brahms – The Four Symphonies

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The Four Symphonies

  • No.1 in C minor, Op.68
  • No.2 in D, Op.73
  • No.3 in F, Op.90
  • No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: July 2001
CD No: ONDINE ODE 990-2T (3 CDs)

Recorded live in May 2000, in Baden-Baden, the smaller size of the COE’s string section approximates to that known to be the Meiningen Orchestra’s playing-strength when it premiered Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in 1885. Slimline Brahms isn’t 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 Berglund’s Brahmsian credentials, which hold forth throughout the set. Using less than ’full’ strings shouldn’t 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 Stein’s 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 Marriner’s Hanssler cycle with his Academy of St Martin’s; 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 One’s slow movement gives his set added interest).

Berglund’s 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; there’s never any dragging of heels or indulgence. Nor is anything underplayed; Berglund’s sense of the whole is unimpeachable.Berglund’s 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.4’s finale (from 3’03”); 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 4’49”) – one of many such ear-grabbing balances – the opening of No.2’s 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 (I’m not usually keen on No.1’s, but Berglund convinces its need) and he joins a select band of conductors – Eduard van Beinum, Boult and Celibidache for example – who allow the motto’s triumphant return in No.1’s finale coda to be ’in tempo’ (at 15’14”); no ham, Berglund just lets it happen.

There’s nothing pedantic about Berglund’s 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.

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