JAlthough today one usually hears Brahms’ symphonies performed by a full symphony orchestra of 70 or 80 musicians, it is said that the composer himself preferred smaller forces. The Karlsruhe Orchestra, which presented its First Symphony, had 49 musicians, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, responsible for the creation of the Fourth, 48. Thomas Dausgaard recorded the four symphonies with a group of this size for BIS , and now Adam Fischer followed his example; the exact number of players he uses is not given in the liner notes, but a photograph of the Danish Chamber Orchestra suggests there are less than 50, and certainly these consistently fascinating performances demonstrate that, even with Brahms, less can mean much more.
These are not performances of period instruments, although it sounds as if Fischer had encouraged his strings to ration their use of vibrato; it’s their scale, and the greater transparency that comes with using fewer strings, that pays such dividends, allowing woodwinds and brass to make their presence felt without overemphasis. Fischer adds even more dynamism by paying scrupulous attention to every detail of rhythmic articulation; he generally prefers fast tempos too, although it’s rare that they seem excessively fast – the second’s endgame starts quite quickly, for example, but never seems rushed, while the fourth’s endgame loses nothing of its cumulative power by being kept in motion.
These fresh and meticulously reworked interpretations are perhaps a far cry from the classic recordings of these symphonies, whether it’s Herbert von Karajan’s first version, Claudio Abbado’s second, Carlos Kleiber’s barnstorming Fourth or Riccardo Chailly in all four of them, but among recent polls it’s hard to think of more interesting polls.
The other choice of the week
Pablo Heras-Casado has already recorded the Schumann concertos for Harmonia Mundi with the period instruments of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, it is therefore strange that, for the same label, he chose to conduct the resolutely modern Munich Philharmonic Orchestra for his study of the four symphonies. At best, his retellings of the concertos were highly impressive, but there’s little to recommend these disappointing and under-energized performances, despite occasional touches suggesting that Heras-Casado attempted to import ideas from his experience working with the FBO. Everything about playing and approach seems quite routine, and they don’t begin to rival the best of what’s already available: for those who want a traditional recording of these works, Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1960s set still takes a lot of beatings, while John Eliot Gardiner’s version shows what historical awareness can bring to these works.