Brahms's Symphony No 2
The confidence gained from the success of Symphony No 1 led to a second symphony a year later, but written in a completely different character. No 2 is relaxed and pastoral in mood, and critics, taking the Beethoven comparisons further, dubbed it 'The Pastoral'.
Symphony No 2
Coupled with Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 3, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20 & 21 (orch Brahms; Dvorák)
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Marin Alsop
Naxos 8 557429 (65’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
This is a late-summer idyll of a performance, easily paced, nicely judged and warmly played. For first-time buyers it will provide unalloyed pleasure; for older hands it will satisfy without necessarily enlightening or surprising.
It is one of those Brahms performances whose centre of gravity is in the violas, cellos and horns. This is apt to the symphony’s lyrical, ruminative character, though there are times when the music is robbed of its light and shade. In the finale, for example, one rather misses the chill-before-dawn mood of the lead-in to the recapitulation; and one needs a keener differentiation of horn and trumpet tone to catch the final page’s incomparable D major blaze. Alsop’s account of the third movement is strong in contrast, the oboe-led Allegretto grazioso strangely muted, the quicker 2/4 section done more or less to perfection. That said, you might think the slow movement under-characterised: insufficiently distinct in tone and temper from the first.
The symphony was recorded in Blackheath Concert Hall, the Hungarian Dances in Watford’s Colosseum: a bigger, brawnier acoustic that doesn’t suit the music quite so well. In dance No 18 in D, one of Dvorák’s orchestrations, there is a noisy, cluttered feel to the performance. By contrast, the alfresco No 3 in F, winningly and economically orchestrated by Brahms himself, is played with real charm and style.
Symphony No 2
Coupled with Beethoven: Symphony No 2
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham
BBC Legends mono BBCL4099-2 (70‘ · ADD). Recorded live 1956. Buy from Amazon
Beecham was no Brahmsian but he loved the Second Symphony and was one of its most persuasive interpreters. In 1936 he made a much-admired recording with the newly founded LPO. Reviewing Beecham’s stereo remake in Gramophone in June 1960, William Mann recalled: ‘I grew up with his 78 set and remember it with keen pleasure. It was light and sunny and full of charm, though perfectly strong; some people probably thought it a reading that lacked nobility.’ The remake, recorded in 1958-59, wasn’t as well liked as the 78rpm original. This live 1956 Edinburgh Festival performance is superior in almost every respect to that laboriously assembled studio version, and left the festival audience flabbergasted, walking on air.
In the studio the rip-roaring conclusion seemed contrived, but here it electrifies sense. If there’s a whiff of the circus about the Edinburgh performance – Beecham audibly urging his players on like a shiny-hatted ringmaster, the final chord sounding defiantly on even as it drowns in a sea of applause – it’s largely to do with the fact that the performance is live. The actual reading is exemplary: a thrilling denouement thrillingly realised. And in the earlier movements Beecham’s reading is everything William Mann remembered it as – sunny and full of charm but also, by 1956, wise and wondering, too. The mono sound is first-rate.
The Beethoven is less interesting, though this Maida Vale broadcast is every bit as vital as the generally well-respected EMI studio recording which Beecham and the RPO made that same winter. Buy it for the Brahms.
Symphonies Nos 1 and 2
West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Semyon Bychkov
Video director Hans Hadulla
ArtHaus Musik 101 243 (156’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo, 5.1 and DTS 5.1 · 0). Includes ‘The Horizon Moves With You’ – a portrait of Semyon Bychkov. Buy from Amazon
It’s a long time since we’ve had such satisfying accounts of either work, free of any idiosyncrasies, adeptly paced and in a clear, warm acoustic. The oboe(s), clarinet(s) and horns make outstanding contributions. Visually, Hans Hadulla (director) and Lothar Mattner (editor) are classy and imaginative without being intrusive (except, arguably, at the end of the First Symphony); they make the most of the medium and eschew any gimmickry. Particularly fine are the long steadicam shots that introduce and end each performance.
The documentary on Bychkov also comes highly recommended – international locations, crisply and atmospherically shot, eloquent contributions from the conductor, and a particularly touching sequence as he celebrates the 95th birthday of his teacher, Ilya Musin.