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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73 (1893) [40:10]
Variations on the St Antoni Chorale, Opus 56a (1901) [17:07]
Hungarian Dances Nos. 5, 6 & 7 (1894) [7.47]
Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80 (1880) [9:27]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2016, Írebro Concert Hall, Sweden. DSD
BIS BIS-2253 SACD [75:56]

Thomas Dausgaard is a conductor who has developed a strong international pedigree, while his recordings with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra have included some fine Beethoven performances and an interesting interpretation of the Second Symphony of Bruckner. The latter raised the self-same question that is raised by this new Brahms issue, of how a symphony historically seen as the preserve of larger ‘symphony orchestras’ will fare when performed by a somewhat smaller ensemble.

One immediate consideration in this regard is that the size of string body encountered here is probably closer to what would have been the norm in Brahms’s own time. An obvious comparison therefore is with the 1997 Telarc recording (CD-80464) by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras, whose coupling of the St Antoni Variations is similar but somewhat less generous, since BIS also manage to include the Academic Festival Orchestra and three of Dausgaard’s own orchestrations of the Hungarian Dances.

The Swedish Chamber Orchestra certainly succeed in emulating their Scottish counterparts in terms of their quality of playing, with crisp ensemble and distinguished contributions among the various departments. However, a similar issue arises here as arose on the earlier recording, namely that the glorious lyricism of Brahms’s writing for the violins does not generate quite the bloom that it does in some performances with ‘symphony orchestras’. In this regard Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphis Orchestra (Philips 4223342) remains a personal favourite.

Dausgaard’s view of the extensive opening movement is strongly projected, with an emphasis on the tight symphonic momentum, while contrasting the contrapuntal drama with the sensitively drawn phrasing of the second subject in particular.

The richly romantic Adagio second movement gains from the focus given from the beginning to the role of the horns, eventually releasing a powerful final climax. After this darkly sonorous sound it is no surprise that the lighter touch of the third movement Intermezzo makes its mark. This is articulated with abundant rhythmic verve, while the sweep of momentum generated in the finale is impressive in itself.

Even so, the Variations on the St Antoni Choral represents the stand-out performance here. The music’s rhythmic vitality is brilliantly realised; so too the balancing of the different variations, ensuring that the whole experience is more than the sum of the parts.

The Academic Festival Overture uses the largest orchestra Brahms ever assembled, with plenty of percussion on show. This well-played performance, however, misses some of the drama, with the final statement of ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’ seeming somehow underwhelming.

Dausgaard’s own characterful orchestrations of three of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances complete a generous programme.

Terry Barfoot
Previous reviews: Richard Hanlon ~ John Quinn



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