Brahms: Symphony No. 2; Academic Festival Overture

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: New York Philharmonic/Kurt Masur
CATALOGUE NO: 9031-77291-2 DDD
Just as people have inextricably entwined Brahms’s First Symphony with Beethoven’s last, so there is a temptation to find resonances between his Second and Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral. Certainly there are bumpkinish jollities afoot in the Allegretto but there is little else to reflect the enchanted lakeside surroundings where Brahms, with apparent ease, wrote this symphony in the summer of 1877. Much of the symphony languishes in a deep shadow. The Adagio is ominously pessimistic, being built almost entirely on a lachrymose descending theme, and the last movement throws forward an uncanny reference to ghostly meanderings in Mahler’s First Symphony.

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That said, Masur embarks upon this performance (it was recorded live) with a sunny disposition. With the same orchestra 30 years ago (now reissued on Sony’s Royal Edition), Leonard Bernstein gave the symphony a certain brilliance but also weighed it down with bombast. Masur is a shade faster overall, but more to the point he swings the melodies round on the tips of their toes, giving them poise, balance, and space where it is due. In the opening of the second movement he allows sunlight to leaven the texture where the writing is heavily biased towards the lower end of the orchestra. The cello tune may be an utterance of incomprehensible sadness, but it is not without hope of salvation. As seems common with live recordings, the microphones have been moved in close to the orchestra, and so instead of the audience noise one expects, there are the creaks and groans of the orchestra going about its business. The natural acoustic of the Avery Fisher Hall doesn’t really enter into the equation, but the sound is warm and robust nevertheless. Christopher Lambton