BRAHMS Symphony No 2 (Dausgaard)
Once again, we face the familiar conundrum: a work that has overcome ‘pathos and Faustian conflicts’ and ‘extends its warm sunshine to connoisseurs and laymen alike’ (Eduard Hanslick). Writing of his Second Symphony Brahms thought, on the one hand, in terms of sweetness and merriment, while on the other he considered the score so bothered by sadness and melancholy that it should be published with a black border. The history of classical recording has its fair share of sunny and sad Seconds, with this lean, transparently voiced new version sitting confidently in the first camp. Thomas Dausgaard’s orchestral layout subscribes to the good, old-fashioned method of spatially dividing first and second violin desks while his ear locates salient inner details – especially among violas (crucially) and woodwinds – so that no musical stone remains unturned. The long first-movement repeat drifts in on the tail of a beautiful transitional passage that is otherwise lost.
Pacey, muscular, thoughtfully expressed and always mindful of where the musical arguments are heading, Dausgaard’s Brahms Second is a refresher course for those who think they know the work better than they actually do. The Symphony’s very opening might seem a tad ordinary until at 1'00" or so a prominent portamento on the cellos leads to a flowing, or should I say flowering, statement of the initial climax, followed by pointed woodwinds and a chamber-like statement of the ‘lullaby’ second subject proper. The development section (starting around 9'11") is taut, emphatic and propulsive. The ‘black bordered’ Adagio non troppo sighs wistfully and Dausgaard is careful to focus the horns when the violins enter with their statement of the opening melody. The third movement has the appropriate feel of an intermezzo about it, the mood sylph-like yet keenly energised, while the finale, once flying at full forte, keeps up the momentum.
The makeweights are interesting, the Variations at their best where the music is breezy and swift (again transparency is a prominent virtue), the Academic Festival Overture stylish and happily extrovert, though the closing ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ might have suggested a greater sense of ceremony. Then there are Dausgaard’s own orchestrations of the Hungarian Dances Nos 5, 6 and 7, rather like Berio visitations, very individual in tone and texture and, like the symphony, refreshingly different from even the most recent rivals. The SACD sound is superb and the excellent booklet notes are by Horst A Scholz.