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Brahms: Complete Symphonies / Norrington, SWV Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart

Brahms / Sgro / Norrington
Release Date: 01/25/2011 
Label:  Swr Music   Catalog #: 93267  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1–4 Roger Norrington, cond; Stuttgart SWR O HÄNSSLER 93267 (3 CDs: 164:04)

As is so often the case with Norrington’s performances, these readings of the Brahms symphonies are marked by highly linear, streamlined phrasing, brisk tempos, lean sonorities, and extraordinary textural clarity. Listeners used to Solti, Munch, Cantelli, or the classic Toscanini-Philharmonia Orchestra performances may find themselves disappointed, particularly in the First Symphony, where Norrington Read more eschews the usual pounding, almost Wagnerian scale and drama in favor of a classical sense of balance. Yet it is exactly because of this that one’s attention is drawn into the score in a way that more dramatic readings cannot equal. Everything, from the pungent wind combinations to the finest filigree of high winds and pizzicato violins, emerges from one’s speakers in a way that makes you hear these scores anew. The lack of breast-pounding drama only heightens the proportion of scale between the various sections and sense of discovery that make these readings unique.

In fact, the feeling I get from these performances is not that Norrington does not appreciate a Munch or Toscanini approach, but that he wants to complement their readings with one that recaptures the exact sound of German orchestras during the period in which they were written, the 1860s and 70s. As usual, Norrington preaches the gospel of pure string tone, but he is musician enough to realize that this is only a means to an end and not an end in itself. Thus, his vision of these famous works has far more life than the anemic, underplayed performances of the two serenades on cpo 777300. For Norrington, pure tone may indeed be an obsession, but he has not forgotten what Brahms sounds like, string tone aside. A good example is the warmth he projects in the First Symphony’s second movement, a performance that closely resembles in style and balance not Toscanini’s Philharmonia performance but his NBC Symphony recording. One also notes, with pleasure, the introduction of a certain amount of string portamento, also a feature of German orchestral playing during the period in question.

Norrington uses an orchestra of about 60 strings, which the Vienna Philharmonic adopted as its size in 1870, but as that orchestra did, Norrington also doubles the winds to complement them. The result, as he puts it, is to hear “the beautiful sound of a large wind choir.” Occasionally, as in the Scherzo of the Third Symphony, he reduces the winds and strings both to the smaller proportions that Brahms used in Leipzig. Norrington also reverts to the old seating arrangement of violins opposite each other, basses in a single row behind the winds, horns on the left, and brass on the right, which makes both the bass and treble sound brighter.

I suppose I was most curious to hear his interpretation of the Second Symphony, which I’ve always considered the least interesting of the four. Not even Toscanini, with either orchestra, was able to make it interesting for me, but Munch did in a marvelously detailed and rhythmically lively recording with the Boston Symphony. Norrington’s approach lies somewhere between the two, which will please those who feel that Munch’s interpretation is too highly italicized (I do not). His sense of drama is unerring here, turning what is often a dull affair into an almost Schumann-like piece. Oddly enough, I am a trifle let down by the Third Symphony, where the phrasing is not as continuous or well inflected as I would like, though the performance is a very good one. Norrington may indeed have his tempos correct, but sometimes he fails to take into account the more vigorous, almost rugged attacks that the older orchestras employed. Von Bülow never recorded, but Nikisch did, and his phrasing and inflections are closer to the source than Norrington’s. On the other hand, I like his version of the Fourth Symphony very much indeed. Lovers of Carlos Kleiber’s famed recording may be disappointed by the lean sonorities, quicker tempos, and less rhetorical phrasing, but I am not. On the contrary, this symphony is better pulled-together than any version I’ve heard in the stereo or digital eras.

Norrington recorded these symphonies roughly 20 years ago with his London Classical Players, but feels that these performances provide better amplitude and sense of drama. I concur.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877; Austria 
Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Austria 
Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1884-1885; Austria 

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