Brahms Symphonies Nos 1–4

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COMPOSERS: Johannes Brahms
LABELS: CPO
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Symphonies Nos 1–4
WORKS: Symphonies 1–4
PERFORMER: Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
CATALOGUE NO: 7777202

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There is no shortage of recordings of the Brahms Symphonies by the world’s greatest orchestras. You might wonder, then, whether we need a new set from the orchestra of one of Sweden’s provincial cities, under a principal conductor who was initially better known as a Baroque violinist. But this proves a release of distinctive character and many rewards.

Currently celebrating its centenary, the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra comprises 61 players – only a little larger than the Meiningen Court Orchestra Brahms loved to work with. Their concert hall also sounds modest in size, but with an acoustic of striking presence, so that the richness and intricacy of Brahms’s wind textures come over with a detailed clarity one scarcely ever gets from more homogenised-sounding large orchestral readings.

Although Manze has come from the ‘period performance’ movement, there is absolutely nothing pedantic in the readings he secures from his modern-instrument players. While he inclines to the view that Brahms’s allegro movements were probably taken faster than today’s practice, he also has a natural feeling for Brahms’s love of variable tempos, broadening convincingly in the more lyrical episodes in the opening allegros of the First and Third Symphonies. Consulting early timings, he also suspects that Brahms’s adagios went a bit slower than now. There are many instances of fresh thinking in his approach – and of fresh feeling. He is also author of the illuminating booklet notes.

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Bayan Northcott