Brahms: Symphony No. 2 - Dausgaard
Classical - Orchestral
Brahms: Symphony No. 2, Haydn Variations, Academic Festival Overture, Hungarian Dances 5-7 (orch. Dausgaard)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)
On a number of previous recordings, the 40-odd members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard have shed a new light on the Romantic symphonic repertoire, with performances described as ‘tight’, ‘invigorating’, ‘transparent’ and ‘thrilling’. Complete cycles of the symphonies of Schumann and Schubert have appeared alongside individual discs with music by Dvořák, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, as well as a recording of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, released in 2012. The disc was named Recommendation of the Month in the German magazine Fono Forum, while the reviewer in International Record Review described it as ‘an account to make one hope a complete traversal is in the offing’. Five years later that hope is nearing fulfilment, as the team’s recording of Symphony No. 2 is released. Composed during the summer of 1877, which Brahms spent at the idyllic Wörthersee, it is one of his sunniest works, often compared to Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It’s followed by the Haydn Variations, in which Brahms was able to combine one of his favourite musical forms –that of theme and variations – with his deep admiration for Joseph Haydn. (Fortunately, the discovery that the theme in question, known as the ‘St Antoni Chorale’, wasn’t by Haydn after all was made long after Brahms’s death.)
The programme continues with other favourites in Brahms’s production, including his greatest commercial success in the form of three of the hugely popular set of Hungarian Dances for piano, here in orchestrations by Thomas Dausgaard. The disc ends in similarly high spirits, with the Academic Festival Overture and its rousing and jubilant C major coda.
Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 27, 2017
Forty-one copies of Brahms’ second symphony are available in high resolution. Embarras de choix? Of course. Can we agree on the ones to go for? I doubt it.
For most, Brahms should be played with a full complement of strings only the larger orchestras are able to deliver. Indeed, his symphonies are often seen as monumental as Bruckner’s. But are they really? Robert von Bahr (BIS) says he doesn’t like Brahms until he heard Thomas Dausgaard’s rendition with his Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Robert has reality at his side. Delving into history one quickly discovers that the kind of orchestras Brahms liked (“more important to me than any Paris or London”) were much smaller in size than is now customary for so called regional orchestras. Like, for instance, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, at the time a most respectable body under such conductors as Richard Wagner and Hans von Bülow, and with which Brahms premiered in 1885 his fourth symphony. Its size? About 44 musicians; only marginally bigger than The Swedish Chamber Orchestra.
Does Dausgaard add a new dimension to Brahms’ second symphony? Yes he does, and it’s different than what most of us are commonly used to. Maybe not as controversial as Manze’s set of all four, but the smaller orchestral body of the excellent Swedish Chamber Orchestra lends it much better transparency, ridding it of some heaviness, which some, including von Bahr, dislike. But is it all that new? In his review for the Manze set: Brahms: 4 Symphonies - Manze , John Miller already pointed out that a lean Brahms is not new and is historically most probably correct.
However, size and correctness is one thing. Taste, musical content and orchestral practice another. To which may be added: differing visions on what lies behind the symphony. And that’s where divergence starts. Comparison with two large bodied formations: Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of Marek Janowski and the outsider, the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Vonk, both Pentatone releases (I do not have Fischer on Channel Classics) will demonstrate it. Both Janowski and Vonk delve deeper in the score than Dausgaard, giving more credibility to Brahms’ remark that it "is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it, I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning" emphasizing the darker elements and deepening emotion. Dausgaard, on the other hand, sticks to Brahms’s earlier qualification of his second, composed in the summer of 1877 that is ‘so merry and sweet... that you’ll think I wrote it specially for you or even for your young wife!” building a lighter version with a sunnier nature. Two views, two interpretations. Or is it a symphony with an outer and an inner character?
Difficult to advise, difficult to choose. I like Dausgaard’s leanness, with more zest and musical content than Manze, and exquisite balance between the different sections. But I also like the weightier versions, for which I have special warmth for Hans Vonk in one of final recordings before his untimely death in the summer of 2005. But Janowski is fine as well. The easy way out? Take both versions. They will serve different moods.
Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net