Brahms: The Four Symphonies (CD review)

Also, Academic Festival Overture; Haydn Variations. Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Telarc CD-80450 (4-disc set).

When I read on the label of this 1997 Telarc release that these were chamber-orchestra performances in their original performing styles, it concerned me a little. Was the late Sir Charles Mackerras trying to do something different for the sake of being different? Certainly, we have an abundance of good traditional recordings of these symphonies around, and were these new ones merely to sound eccentric?

The first thing I did was consult the accompanying booklet notes to find out what to listen for and why. Here Sir Charles tells us that a major difference between orchestras in Brahms's day and our own is that their size increased dramatically during Brahms's lifetime, from an average of forty or so members at the time of his birth in 1833 to over one hundred by the time of his death in 1897. In fact, the term "chamber orchestra" largely did not exist in the nineteenth century; an orchestra was an orchestra. That Mackerras uses the Scottish Chamber Orchestra of about fifty players is in keeping with the numbers utilized for the premieres of both the First and Fourth Symphonies. (By the Fourth Symphony, orchestras had, indeed, become much larger, but Brahms declined an offer to augment the strings.)

Another difference comes in the apparent irregularities among the various performing editions of the scores of these works, with Mackerras going back to the most-authentic possible original sources, enlarged upon by comments from contemporary pupils of Brahms. Apparently, scholars and the conductor corrected any major discrepancies. Next, we have the Brahmsian trait of dividing the first and second violins to the left and right of the conductor, a practice that much later conductors like Otto Klemperer and Leopold Stokowski employed in their stereo recordings. Other differences you might notice in Mackerras's performances include less vibrato, more lingering on the upbeat preceding big motive themes, and considerably more flexibility in tempo than conductors usually use today. A thirty-six minute interview with Sir Charles illustrates many of these issues, and the Telarc folks include it on a bonus CD.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Finally, after reading the booklet and listening to the interview, it was time to settle down to the symphonies themselves, and I must admit I had by now expected all the dissimilarities I had just read and heard about to overwhelm me. Not so. I noticed some differences, to be sure, especially as I had prepared myself for them, but overall I found these performances more greatly marked by their conventionality than by any manifest quaintness.

The smaller orchestral forces naturally provide a more vivid exposition of the scores, with the separation of the violins increasing the tonal and stereophonic effects. Yet with Telarc's big, warm, rich sound and the use of modern instruments, the overall impression is not so evident as that of, say, a period-instrument group versus a modern orchestra. I noticed some rubato and general tempo variations, too, but I did not find them intrusive. While Mackerras speeds up a little here and slows down a little there, he does it with discretion. His intent is to liven up the proceedings rather than to be quirky. And, needless to say, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play flawlessly for the conductor.

Taken on their own, these are very personal, strongly felt symphonic interpretations that at the same time do not overwhelm the listener with idiosyncrasy. They are much like Sir Charles's earlier readings of the Mozart symphonies for Telarc, and the record company do them up in similar sonics--big and warm in the bass and midrange, as I say, and a little pinched and nasal in the treble. I'd venture that if you liked the sound of Mackerras's Mozart releases, you would probably like these as well.

Although I would not recommend the Mackerras set as a person's only recording of the Brahms symphonies (I still prefer the big orchestral treatments from Klemperer, Boult, Kertesz, Walter, and others), they make excellent, alternative additions to one's primary sets. Oh, and if the idea of buying all four symphonies in a box set seems too daunting for you, Telarc also make the symphonies available separately on single discs.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa