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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 73 (1877) [40:10]
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op 56a (1873) [17:07]
Hungarian Dances from WoO 1, Nos 6, 7, 5 (1869) (orch Dausgaard) [7:42]
Academic Festival Overture, Op 80 (1880) [9:27]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2016, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden
Reviewed in stereo and SACD options BIS BIS-2253 SACD [75:56]
Here’s another helping of lean, freshly-textured, cleanly pointed Romantic core repertoire from Thomas Dausgaard and his superb band. BIS have made the most in recent years of both SCOs (Scottish and Swedish), notably in recording contemporary music (Macmillan, Rehnqvist and Beamish inter alia). Both orchestras’ recordings are characterised by a signature clarity of texture and a focus on inner detail. There is a kinship, I feel, between Mackerras’ superb later Mozart recordings with the Scottish Orchestra (issued on Linn) and Dausgaard’s often sparkling forays into later staple repertoire with their Scandinavian cousins; thus far, we’ve had complete cycles of Schubert, Schumann, and occasional Bruckner and Dvořák. This is our second helping of Brahms – I enjoyed the First Symphony (review) but that’s arguably a trickier and bigger-boned beast for a small band to pull off. Of course, Brahms’ reverence for Beethoven’s symphonies delayed his own engagement with the form; he grappled with it for two decades before he completed his first attempt in 1876 at the ripe old age of 43. Having been released from these shackles, the follow-up appeared within eighteen months, seemingly inspired by an extended vacation at the Wörthersee in Carinthia. After the tumult of the First, one of the main attractions of the Second is its fluency and confidence. On the surface it is joyful, brimming with melody and the essence of the serenade, yet, especially in the first two movements, moments of unease, sadness and nostalgia occasionally seem to break through. This account of the Second emphasises its sunniness rather than its sadness, but the emotional ambiguities are not completely banished, Dausgaard’s trademark clarity emphasising at times seemingly yearning inner parts (oboes and violas in particular). The lightness of Brahms’ writing really emerges in this reading; the balance problems of a small string group against strident brass (sometimes evident in Dausgaard’s account of the First Symphony) are not a problem here; perhaps the BIS engineers have resolved any lingering issues.
Having just returned from a late January canal walk where both snowdrops and lapwings were abundant, the opening movement on first hearing seems literally full of the joys of spring. Brisk and lithe, it breezes along in its cheery way; on subsequent hearings, however, one becomes more aware of the inner parts than is usual, seemingly a felicitous trademark of Dausgaard’s earlier BIS releases of romantic symphonies. Phrases are sculpted lovingly, never deliberately seeking attention, but encouraging the keen listener towards greater concentration. The tempo never seems too rushed; there’s still time to appreciate the scenery. Dausgaard toured the work with this orchestra before recording it; a couple of the reviews implied that the tempi adopted in this Allegro non troppo were occasionally prone to inflexibility but I don’t pick that up here; while the pace never slackens, there is variation and rubato when needed – the conductor is subtle and wise in this regard.
The slow movement is one of my favourite spans of Brahms; the emotional ambiguities are certainly suggested in this reading but this mood isn’t allowed to overwhelm the whole and the sonics provided by the smaller forces here create a gentler contrast to the effusions of the first movement than is often the case. It still pulls effortlessly at the heartstrings, though; the interplay of horn and flute at around the two minute mark is truly affecting. In fact, throughout the whole recording one is frequently taken by the solo woodwinds which have been splendidly caught by the BIS team. It’s over all too quickly but one’s spirits are quickly lifted by gorgeous, flowing oboe lines in the Allegretto grazioso opening of the serenade like third movement. The contrast in its Presto section, with the exchanges between mischievous woodwinds and busybody strings, is wonderfully managed by Dausgaard – and the engineers. The woodwinds and brass again star in the Allegro con spirit, which displays a confident and purposeful momentum from the first whistle. The sforzandi are played with true relish. There is a moment of release and contemplation at the ‘Mahler 1’ moment but we are soon back on the road, heading swiftly, but never overly so, towards the finish. It’s a crisp and lissom performance. I keep returning to Dausgaard’s efforts and despite the presence of innumerable Brahms cycles on my shelves, I expect this disc will be no exception.
The issue is further enhanced by the couplings; I hesitate to use the word ‘fillers’, especially in the case of the account of the Haydn Variations (for some reason the ‘St Anthony’ nickname seems to be applied less frequently these days). Here the chorale theme is dignified without being too stately. The balance between the different instrumental textures in each variation is telling, the detail allowed to emerge most naturally. Dausgaard manages the contrasts in tempi most satisfyingly. Again, transparency and detail are prioritised. As for the Academic Festival Overture, it sounds anything but academic here; it’s certainly boisterous and rollicking but the smaller forces employed often allow previously unacknowledged (by my ears at any rate) instrumental textures to reveal themselves. While this reading also has grace and humour in spades, the Overture itself sounds curiously modern and concludes this very well-filled disc in an appropriately upbeat way. Beforehand however are three of the ubiquitous Hungarian Dances in orchestrations by Thomas Dausgaard, which seem designed mainly to show off the different sections of his band. It’s a delight to hear these ‘lollipops’ clothed in slightly strange garb. They emerge refreshingly unscathed, while the reputations of the players of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra are winningly enhanced. I suspect they have already acted as encores at many of their gigs.
I have remarked repeatedly on the BIS engineering which is as resplendent as ever: producer extraordinaire Ingo Petry and his trusty engineer Fabian Frank continue to generate sonic miracles. My preference is for listening to this kind of repertoire through two speakers; however, I can confirm that this disc sounds duly impressive through four in its SACD option.