Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4

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LABELS: Hannsler
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Stuttgart SWR Radio SO/Roger Norrington
With so many Brahms symphony cycles on the market, any newcomer to the field has to offer something different in order to attract some attention. Here conductor Roger Norrington has applied the principles of 19th-century performance practice he honed in the 1990s with the London Classical Players to the modern instrument orchestra of which he is now chief conductor. The results are invariably fascinating. Although employing a full-sized string section, which necessitates a doubling of the woodwind complement in the tutti sections, the resultant textures remain amazingly transparent. Indeed, the performances convey a real sense of chamber music-making with wonderfully responsive wind solos that dialogue most effectively with the strings. The only downside to all this is that there are times when the almost vibrato-less string sound can sound a little emaciated (for example, the cello melody that opens the third movement of the Third), and in some of louder passages the string section as a whole has to fight hard to be heard against the background of the increased power of the rest of the orchestra.


Apart from the issue of texture, Norrington applies greater fluidity of tempo than in his earlier recordings for EMI, but continues to draw attention to the unique nature of Brahms’s articulation, which in fact breaks up the melodic line of such passages as the opening of the Second Symphony in a different manner to the seamless approach favoured by most modern conductors.


Each performance is prefaced by a most engaging introduction from the conductor who remains as passionately committed to his performing ideals and to the music as ever. It would have been even more illuminating if the cameras had allowed us a little opportunity to eavesdrop on a rehearsal so as to witness first-hand the ways in which Norrington manages to persuade his orchestra to reappraise these well-worn masterpieces. Erik Levi