Brahms: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture. Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra. Channel Classics CCS SA 33514.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, in 1877, taking the composer considerably less time to write it than it did his First Symphony, which took him some fifteen years. One can probably attribute his late-blooming symphonic output to his worries that the public expected him to be Beethoven's successor, and he figured he could never live up to what Beethoven had already done. Anyway, by the time he got his initial symphony under his belt, the second one came easier, and he finished it in less than a year, scoring it for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Unlike the First Symphony, which has a grand, imposing sweep, the Second Symphony sounds rather cheery and pastoral, which inevitably forces some listeners to think of it in the same light as Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral" Symphony. Be that as it may, Brahms wasn't quite so sure about it, writing to his publisher that the symphony "is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning." One assumes he was teasing.

Over the years any number of conductors have successfully negotiated the score. Among my own favorite recordings are those from Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), George Szell (Sony), Herbert von Karajan (DG), even old Leopold Stokowski (Cala). Now, we hear what Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra do with the music. To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the only other Fischer recording I reviewed, his rather static and underpowered Stravinsky Rite of Spring. So I was hoping the gentler nature of the Brahms would better suit his approach.

Anyway, the first movement begins in an appropriately tranquil mood before increasing into a full-blooded loud section. Then, by the end it returns to a more tranquil mood that closes the movement. It is in this first segment of the symphony that we hear Brahms's famous "lullaby," although the composer continually reshapes variations on the tune. Fischer does very well with the lyrical aspects of this movement, even if he handles things so gently that the big, rhapsodic main theme doesn't quite open up and bloom as well as I've heard it. This rendering comes across as more of a languid, leisurely Brahms than most of the conductors cited above have given us. Be that as it may, it's a lovely rendition of the score, full of sweet, sunny moments.

Ivan Fischer
Next, we get a brooding Adagio, again with variations. Under Fischer's direction there is a suitably rustic air to the proceedings, although the conductor tends to smooth out a bit the movement's melancholy effect. Let's say it's a kind of sophisticated countryside we hear in the music.

Brahms marks the third-movement an Allegretto grazioso, a scherzo that alternates a lilting oboe melody with a quick-paced melody in the strings, finally closing in a placid mood. Fischer puts a note of urgency and energy into this segment, making it one of the highlights of his reading. Yet it still sounds a tad reticent to me, again compared to other performances in my experience, like the one I coincidentally heard in person a short while before this listening from the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.

A vivacious Allegro con spirito finishes up the symphony, parts of it loud, then calm, then tranquil, ending in a joyful conclusion. This finale goes off as before, with Fischer lending a note of happy celebration to the affair and again an emphasis on the lyrical qualities of the music at perhaps the expense of all-out glitter and exuberance.

Accompanying the symphony, we find two Brahms overtures, the Tragic and the Academic Festival. Could they be any different in mood? The Tragic seems to fit Fischer best, and he injects a proper dose of doom-and-gloom into the music. OK, maybe he loses a little something in terms of sheer drama, but I liked it overall. In the Academic Festival Overture, though, Fischer doesn't work up quite the sense of full-blown ebullience he might have, content with making the piece more a study of college professors than the pupils I believe Brahms had in mind. So, the interpretation is a little too sedate for my taste, yet it is still full of mischief and student mayhem. It's hard to go wrong in this music.

Producer Hein Dekker and recording engineers Hein Dekker and Jared Sacks made the SACD for Channel Classics Records at the Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary, in February 2012. The state-of-the-art equipment they used includes B&K and Schoeps microphones, a Grimm Audio DSD Super Audio digital converter and Pyramix editing, Audio Lab and B&W 803d speakers, van Medevoort amplifiers, a Rens Heijnis custom mixing board, and Van den Hul cables. The hybrid SACD has a 5.0 multichannel layer, a 2.0 stereo SACD layer, and a 2.0 stereo regular layer, and I listened to the 2.0 stereo SACD.

There is a realistic distance and presence about the orchestral sound, with moderate depth and dimensionality to the ensemble. It's also a slightly warm, somewhat soft sound, with nevertheless more than adequate detailing in the midrange and just a touch of brightness in the treble. The dynamic range is also more than acceptable if not appearing to develop to full strength, and there is a fine sense hall ambience present.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa