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|
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: