WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2;Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale
PERFORMER: Scottish CO/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80450
What Charles Mackerras sets out to do here is to recreate something of the atmosphere of Brahms’s symphonies as performed during his lifetime. The problem is that even during that period, performance conventions were diverse and shifting. The first performance of the First Symphony was given by the 49-strong Karlsruhe orchestra; in 1878 Brahms conducted an orchestra of 113 in the Second Symphony.
Mackerras opts for something nearer the lower figure. He establishes as ground rules a series of stylistic practices that would have been familiar in the 19th century: a free approach to tempi, antiphonally placed first and second violins, the use of portamento and relative neglect of vibrato, trombones with narrower bore and a more abrasive timbre, and so on.
The result is a triumph. The finale of the First Symphony provides an early vindication of the project: small, separated string groups lighten the densities of the score, while from the brass comes a distinctive and attractive rasp. The Second Symphony follows in a mood of sunny lyricism, flowing with life and energy. Where one might have expected the ensemble to be underpowered in the Third and Fourth Symphonies, there is a gain in articulacy and clarity with no sacrifice in impressiveness. A resounding success. Christopher Wood