WGBH Radio WGBH Radio theclassicalstation.org

Brahms: Symphonies / Berglund, Chamber Orchestra Of Europe

Brahms / Chamber Orchestra Of Europe / Berglund
Release Date: 02/26/2013 
Label:  Ondine   Catalog #: 1229  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Paavo Berglund
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Number of Discs: 3 
Length: 2 Hours 42 Mins. 

In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews



BRAHMS Symphonies 1–4 Paavo Berglund, cond; Chamber O of Europe ONDINE 1229 (3 CDs: 161:45)


Several things about this release annoy me. For starters, if you didn’t know that Paavo Berglund died in January 2012, you’d have to buy this set and read the small print on the credits page of the enclosed booklet to know that these are recycled recordings made in 2000. Second, if you bought this set when it was new, it will infuriate you to learn that Amazon is selling the repackaged three-disc set for $14.99, and Read more ArkivMusic is selling it for $13.99. Shocking as that may seem, it may be an honest price based on minutes of music per disc. And that brings me to my third complaint. Granted, Ondine’s catalog is thin on Brahms, and Berglund, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t record the two overtures or Haydn Variations that often serve as fillers for the symphonies, but surely the company could have found something to supplement the two half empty discs that contain the first two symphonies.


To give credit where due, first movement exposition repeats are observed. However, something else stuck in my craw in the form of a blurb in tiny print on page three of the booklet. “Present day performances of Brahms’s symphonies with smaller string forces,” it says, “are rare, but there is evidence that the size of the orchestra in Brahms’s time was not fixed and, indeed, Brahms’s own orchestra in Meiningen performed his Fourth Symphony with almost the same forces as are used on this recording.”


Let it be stipulated that in 2000, when these recordings were made, there weren’t as many performances of Brahms’s symphonies with Meiningen-sized orchestras as there are today. In just this issue alone, for instance, I review a wonderful new recording of the First Symphony with Thomas Dausgaard leading the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, performed by an ensemble of 45 to 50 players, which looks to be about the same number Berglund used in these Chamber Orchestra of Europe performances. But even in 2000, when Berglund led these performances, the idea of using a smaller orchestra wasn’t new. Charles Mackerras led the symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Telarc in 1997 in performances that purported to emulate the Meiningen experience.


The rationale for reduced forces, however, is flawed because it assumes that since Brahms presided over such performances he must have liked them, whereas the fact is he didn’t. To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, Brahms went to the podium with the orchestra he had, not with the one he wanted. Whether the period instrument or one-to-a-part practitioners choose to accept it or not, where Brahms was concerned, bigger was better. For his orchestral and chorus-with-orchestra works, he wanted as many strings as possible, and for his piano concertos, he wanted Steinway’s most powerful model.


Aside from my grumbles about the production and marketing of this set, I have to say that Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 2000 was not the ensemble it is today. It has matured over the past decade into one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world, but when these recordings were made, there were still a few kinks in the ranks. It’s hard to say whether the players themselves were not quite up to the challenge of Brahms’s symphonies or Berglund’s conducting didn’t provide clear enough direction. In either case, the main problem manifests itself in confusion in many of Brahms’s rhythmically intricate passages.


Take, for example, the sequence beginning in bar 157 of the First Symphony’s first movement. To begin with, Brahms’s notation is counterintuitive, which doesn’t make things any easier. Three eighth notes hammered out marcato are followed by a quarter-note rest and then an eighth-note rest to complete the bar of 3/4. But why wouldn’t you put the eighth-note rest first, right after the three eighth notes, and then the quarter-note rest? The answer comes two bars later when the violas and then the cellos have to reply in overlapping staggered entrances. It’s one of those instances where you really can’t expect to come in right by listening to the players that come in before you. In fact, you actually have to tune them out; otherwise, you’ll miss your entrance because it’s really hard to come in with an eighth note that looks like it should be an upbeat but is actually on the beat and has to coincide with the third eighth note of the voice just before you.


If you listen closely to what happens in the performance at hand, you’ll hear what amounts to a moment of anarchy. It passes by quickly enough, but in that instant, the string sections are out of sync, but not in the way Brahms intended their entrances to be asynchronous; it’s more like they’re discombobulated. As Alex Ross says in his book, Listen to This , “Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm.” Here, the weapon backfires and shoots the executants instead of the target.


Having made the point that this is not the greatest Brahms cycle on record, I’ll counter that it’s far from the worst; and at a price of $13 or $14 for the whole set, I’d say that it would make an excellent starter for that someone you know who is just getting into classical music, who isn’t going to notice the minor shortcomings in the playing, and who still needs recordings of the Brahms symphonies to check off his or her list of the 100 Great Works.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins    
Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Paavo Berglund
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/2000 
Venue:  Live  Festival Hall, Baden-Baden, Germany 
Length: 44 Minutes 32 Secs. 
2. Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Paavo Berglund
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/2000 
Venue:  Live  Festival Hall, Baden-Baden, Germany 
Length: 43 Minutes 30 Secs. 
3. Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Paavo Berglund
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/2000 
Venue:  Live  Festival Hall, Baden-Baden, Germany 
Length: 36 Minutes 0 Secs. 
4. Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Paavo Berglund
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1884-1885; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/2000 
Venue:  Live  Festival Hall, Baden-Baden, Germany 
Length: 37 Minutes 43 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: I. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: II. Andante sostenuto
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: IV. Adagio - Piu andante - Allegro non troppo ma con brio
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73: I. Allegro non troppo
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73: II. Adagio non troppo
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73: III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) - Presto, ma non assai
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73: IV. Allegro con spirito

Customer Reviews

Be the first to review this title
Review This Title
Review This Title Share on Facebook