Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1-4

Tapiola Sinfonietta/Mario Venzago (Sony)

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Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Mario Venzago
Sony 19075853112  221:25 mins (3 discs)

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Yet another set of chamber orchestra interpretations of Brahms’s symphonies that aims for lightness of articulation and the greatest transparency of texture. As also demonstrated in his thought-provoking Bruckner recordings for CPO, Mario Venzago manages to strip late 19th-century orchestral repertoire of any middle-aged spread by focusing instead on the music’s intimate and reflective characteristics, something that is much more difficult to achieve with a larger orchestra.

The obvious entry points into this approach are the two early serenades that Brahms composed before the symphonies. Thanks to the Tapiola Sinfonietta’s superbly responsive playing, these works really sparkle, Venzago making great play of the outer movements’ rustic charm while at the same time allowing the respective Adagios to flow without sacrificing their natural Schubertian lyricism. This serenade-like quality successfully infuses the dance movements of the symphonies, especially the third movements of Nos 1 and 2. But perhaps the most subtle chamber-music intimacy is achieved in the delicately played and spell-bindingly beautiful account of the slow movement of the Third.

The big stumbling block for me comes in the more overtly dramatic passages, where Venzago’s lean-textured and dynamically subdued conception seems at odds with Brahms’s evident intensity of expression: the stormy and anguished music of the First, the heroic sweep of the Third’s outer movements and the passion of the Fourth, all lack the level of urgency and variety of colours achieved by Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Linn. One other minor editing problem should be noted in the Finale of the Fourth where bar 60 (1:34) seems to have been excised, thus unexpectedly foreshortening the clearly defined harmonic pattern underpinning the Passacaglia.

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Erik Levi