March 21, 2013


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Paavo Berglund. Ondine. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 7 and 8. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker and Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Teldec. $29.99 (4 CDs).

     Despite critic Eduard Hanslick’s persistent denigration of Bruckner’s symphonies in comparison to those of Brahms, there are actually many ways in which the symphonies of these composers are similar, not superficially but harmonically and even structurally. However, these two fine sets of live performances, each containing four symphonies, highlight the works’ differences in some exceptionally striking ways. Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) here commands only a 50-piece orchestra, far smaller than most of those playing Brahms nowadays and, indeed, much smaller than most (although not all) that played Brahms in the composer’s own time. Brahms’ symphonies are robust, even heavy – capable of sounding muddy and turgid, but monumental and elegant at their best. They are scarcely candidates for lightness and transparency, but hearing them in that mode is a fascinating listening experience. The middle voices, which get short shrift most of the time in these works simply because it is difficult to bring them out without mis-balancing the orchestra, peek through Berglund’s performances again and again with seeming effortlessness. Timpani resound and punctuate the music without having to be struck with undue force. Woodwinds do not seem to be straining to be heard through massed strings. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe actually sounds relaxed in these performances: no section appears to be pushing to make itself stand out above the others. Berglund paces the symphonies well, and once the initial oddity of lighter-sounding-than-usual Brahms wears off, what emerges are very well-constructed performances that date to 2000 and still sound very good indeed.

     This is not to say that Brahmsian grandeur is always unmissed.  The second movement of No. 1 has a lovely, yearning quality made more poignant by the small string section, and the violin solo comes through absolutely beautifully; but the finale’s opening minutes are less fraught and mysterious than they can be (although the pizzicato passages come through with exceptional clarity), so when the horns “clear the air,” there is less contrast than needed to be fully effective, and the main theme simply sounds thin. The finale is simply not as impressive as usual here. In No. 2, the first movement lacks the broad warmth that a larger string section would provide, but still sounds quite lovely. The central section of the third movement works particularly well with the reduced orchestra. And the finale, interestingly, has a very full sound – the orchestra scarcely seems reduced in size at all. No. 3 has the warmest sound in the symphonies, so the transparent texture of the opening is quite surprising; but it soon proves very satisfying, providing structural clarity and a welcome sense of openness through the first two movements. The third and fourth movements do sound thin, however, with the gorgeous strings of the finale almost too chamber-music-like in feeling to be fully effective. The ending is evanescent rather than calming after turbulence – a justifiable interpretation, but one that takes some getting used to. In Symphony No. 4, which in many ways is the grandest of the set, the reduced orchestra proves surprisingly advantageous, helping bring out the work’s ties to Bach and the Baroque era. The clarity of lines in the first movement comes through very well indeed, and the sectional balance in the second movement is unusually clear. The third movement, its style unique in Brahms’ symphonies, has real flair here, and the finale is quite remarkable: clean, clear and beautifully balanced. In fact, the Fourth is the most successful symphony in this release, and fully justifies the idea of performing Brahms’ symphonies with a much smaller orchestra than is the norm.

     A few conductors, notably Mario Venzago, have also tried the reduced-orchestra approach in the music of Bruckner, but most continue to seek the biggest possible sound for Bruckner’s music, and there is no sound bigger than that of three of the world’s best orchestras: the Royal Concertgebouw and the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. One of the great pleasure of Nicholas Harnoncourt’s performances of Bruckner’s Third, Fourth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies is the chance to hear all these superb ensembles under the same conductor, each orchestra with its own marvelous massed and burnished sound but each sounding quite different from the others. The recordings date to different years – No. 3 to 1995, No. 4 to 1998, No. 7 to 1999 and No. 8 to 2001 – but that is not why the orchestras sound different. It is hard to realize at a time when so many orchestras, especially in the United States, seem actively to seek a homogenized sound that, however good, is largely indistinguishable from the equally good sound of other orchestras, but the top European orchestras still cherish their individuality and use differing sonic production as a way of keeping their performances distinctive. Hearing these three marvelously full-throated orchestras in Bruckner’s music is a pleasure of the first degree. These are big performances, fully in the spirit of Bruckner turning the orchestra into a sort of super-organ – although that concept is by no means always accepted these days. In fact, these performances are somewhat on the old-fashioned side, with Harnoncourt emphasizing the massive sonorities that these orchestras can produce and positioning Bruckner’s music as a sort of grand sonic cathedral. In three of the four performances, this works extremely well. No. 3 (heard here in the 1877 edition) has a very Wagnerian sound even though the “Wagner Symphony” does not, in this version, contain all the operatic quotations that Bruckner originally included. The work builds and builds again, becoming an imposing edifice that strives ever-higher until its culmination in a finale of rare power and tremendous scope. No. 4 – which, along with No. 3, is played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra – is equally impressive. Heard in its usual version (1878/80), it is flowing, warm and involving, its beauties more relaxed than those of No. 3. The Concertgebouw’s exceptionally warm strings and beautifully balanced sections produce an elegantly emotive performance that builds effectively while letting the symphony’s manifest beauties come through quite clearly.

     The sound is quite different for Bruckner’s Seventh as played by the Vienna Philharmonic. This remains, as it has been for many decades if not longer, an astonishing orchestra, no section inferior to any other, all constantly playing at the top of their game and all melding into a smooth, gorgeous and unforgettable sound immediately recognizable as Viennese. The strings are as smooth as butter but never cloying, their sound washing over listeners in great waves of beauty punctuated by equally fine and equally well-modulated contributions from winds, brass and percussion.  The Seventh is one of only two Bruckner symphonies to exist in a single edition (the Sixth is the other), so all orchestras play the same music, which means that the Vienna Philharmonic’s clear superiority in sound and in communicating the “Bruckner experience” is due to the orchestra’s intrinsic skill rather than to the circumstance of presenting a better or worse edition of the music. The pacing here is excellent, the sound unexcelled, and simply sitting back and letting Bruckner’s Seventh wash over you as thematic group follows thematic group and beauty follows beauty is a splendid experience. The sole somewhat-disappointing performance in Harnoncourt’s set is of Bruckner’s Eighth, heard here in the 1892 edition (not 1888 or 1890). The edition itself is not the best, and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic – whose brass section is unexcelled for warmth and perfect unison – is certainly not a problem. But Harnoncourt seems to lose his way in this very expansive symphony. There is a lack of rhythmic precision in the first movement; the Adagio feels draggy, although it is taken at a reasonable tempo; and the finale does not come across as a capstone – it drifts and nearly comes apart into sections before Harnoncourt finally pulls everything together in the coda. This four-CD set is nevertheless highly impressive, and the chance to hear such outstanding orchestras – and such large ones – performing Bruckner is every bit as thrilling and fascinating as the opportunity to experience Brahms played by a much smaller ensemble than is customarily heard in his symphonies.

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