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Brahms: 4 Symphonies - Norrington

Brahms: 4 Symphonies - Norrington

Hänssler Classic  093.267.000 (3 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Brahms: Complete Symphonies

Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Roger Norrington (conductor)

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Review by John Broggio - February 26, 2011

After Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Norrington, this set started me salivating; at last, a good set of Brahms symphonies performed with an appropriately sized orchestra and HIP practices.
Before discussing the individual performances, in his notes (which reiterate his favourite "no vibrato until 1940's in Vienna" quotes and the need for antiphonal violins amongst other things), Norrington notes that Brahms expected around 30 string players for his compositions and so, presumably to keep his players happy, Norrington surprisingly does not follow the HIP road as dogmatically as he might once have done but instead uses 60 strings and doubles the wind parts to keep things in proportion. Obviously, the brass players now are not in proportion and consequently have to blow that bit harder to get the same overall balance - for some reason this has passed Norrington by!

The shock of the tempo that Norrington chooses for the opening of the first symphony is great - this is (as prompted by the recollections of one of Brahms' colleagues) definitely 2-in-a-bar, not the usual 6 beats. Some might find that the very quickness deprives the music of it's natural weight if taken slower and others may observe that some of the rubato is quite pedantic in places that stops the build-up of momentum and power. The main allegro by contrast is paced conventionally (exposition repeats in all places indicated are observed in this set) and here the rubato feels far more natural; sadly the same cannot be said of the coda where the phrasing is de-constructed into very many, small blocks. The vibrato free playing certainly lightens textures beautifully and provides a sense of clarity that is rarely felt in this repertoire, yet the number of strings means that the textures never sound in danger of becoming undernourished. Tempo choices for the remaining movements are largely conventional and the famous, beautiful solo for horn, oboe and violin is wonderfully done with some expressive (not constant) vibrato from the leader. The Un poco Allegretto e grazioso is well performed and Norrington lets the music speak for itself. The massive finale (for Brahms) begins convincingly but in the main Allegro ma non troppo ma con brio, the tempo shifts are strong and sudden (arguably not what Brahms called for) and make it hard to enjoy the playing but the coda is dispatched well by any standard.

The account of the second symphony will prove highly controversial for many listeners. Listening in horror to the way the woodwind were encouraged to play their phrases literally in a very exaggerated manner – this means that each bar starts afresh and the interpretation seemingly takes no account of the implicit longer line. Fortunately, when the violins steal in, the phrasing is longer in the score and suddenly the music comes alive; this is temporary respite however for the woodwind passage returns throughout the movement and whatever atmosphere had been created is quickly destroyed (again). Some might also consider the prominence of some brass phrases rather over-the-top as, compared to the writing elsewhere, it sounds to these ears as supporting or colouring material. A further tendency that becomes apparent in this work is that much of the rubato is applied on a micro rather than macro level; in this way rather odd pull-ups happen that breaks the longer line apart, destroying musical momentum. The rather strange rubato sounds at times like the tempo equivalent to the dynamic “bulges” that early HIP performances were rightly criticised for in the 1980's – perhaps in years to come, one might experience this style of performing differently. The third movement is generally well turned out and leads to a disappointing finale which often sounds rushed (despite being about halfway inbetween Jansons account Brahms: Symphonies 2 & 3 - Jansons and Abbado's BPO recording in terms of timing) and compared to the other symphonies on this set, the brass now seems suddenly reticent – altogether a most odd and frustrating performance.


In the third symphony, for the first time the decision to use divided violins pays off with numerous fragmentary ideas darting around the string section. In complete contrast to the second symphony, Norrington is much more self-effacing here and the odd moment of point-making here or there, there is little on the phrasing front that listeners would find objectionable. However some of the balances are strange – the trumpets in particular are extraordinarily bright and verge on being uncomfortably so in the fanfares that open the first movement. The pacing of this work is also very well judged with a beautifully flowing tempo for the second movement and a thrillingly fast movement for the finale. The translucent strings are helpful in producing radiant textures in the second and third movements, which even see some audible glissando's on occasion! In the last movement, the brass and timpani are more prominent than usual and those used to the more famous central European ensembles in this music might well find the strings to small in tone and volume. Up until this point, the woodwind players have excelled themselves with delightful playing that is both vivid and sensitive – here though, they are pushed so hard that in attempting to be heard over the brass and strings in the central section the intonation is occasionally sacrificed. A minor criticism is that the final coda is arguably not relaxed enough in mood and so the restless mood from earlier in the movement continues leaving the listener feeling unsettled instead of sated.

In the first movement of the fourth symphony, thanks to Norrington's tempo choice, there is plenty of forward momentum. In common with the other symphonies the HIP-influenced playing produces clear textures; the strings sometimes seem a little restricted in their expressiveness when compared to the wind players – partly this is due to the absolute lack of vibrato and, for once, the clear textures sometimes become the enemy rather the friend of the score. More surprising is the rather lightweight sounding timpani throughout the score. Sadly in the slow movement, the beautiful woodwind blending is undermined by a return to the clipped phrasing that so blighted the second symphony. The main idea that Norrington seems to project for the finale is one of constantly changing the tempos from variation to the next so that a progressive build-up of tension is prevented. On occasion, the stripped-down textures provide for (unintentional?) foresight, such as the woodwind variation approaching the sound of Shostakovich – truly something I have not heard before in Brahms! As in other parts of the set, there is phrasing that is all too reminiscent of the bulges that plagued early HIP renditions of Classical repertoire – this is especially noticeable in the flute variation. Most irritatingly of all however is that the final variation sagged and felt bloated and this made the sudden up-tempo into the final peroration feel false.

The symphonies were recorded in concert over a period of 3 days back in June 2005 – the sound generally sounds reasonable with little hint of an audience presence during the music itself.

A disappointing set that leaves one wanting.

Copyright © 2011 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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