BRAHMS Symphony No 2. Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Saraste)
As ever with Brahms’s D major Symphony there’s the loaded question: are we talking a thoughtful work with occasional sunbeams reaching through the autumn mists or a ‘happy’ work with the odd shadow thrown in for contrast?
My own view is securely in the former camp but the beauty of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s July 2017 Cologne performance is that it doesn’t take sides. Saraste lays Brahms’s cards on the table rather than his own, so that the first movement’s exposition (played here with its important repeat intact) banks into the development section on the wings of a question, having not previously suffered distracting knots in the musical line or, worse, a tempo that’s too slow. What you hear is beautiful, flowing, fairly formal, nicely shaped and, above all, inwardly gentle, though that’s not to say that the performance lacks backbone. Great too that the first movement’s coda is kept on the move and that the Adagio’s opening paragraphs have an earnestness about them as well as a sense of intimacy that runs parallel through the best of Brahms’s chamber music. The unfolding modulations from 4'33" and the exquisite way they’re orchestrated is tellingly interpreted (listen from 5'57" and note the beautiful transition into the violin melody).
The Allegretto marks an effective lightening of mood – again, Saraste’s tempo is very well chosen – and the sensitively inflected finale has an appropriate ‘outdoorsy’ quality to it, exhilarating rather than excessively hard‑driven. The Haydn Variations are also treated to a well-judged interpretation, their constituent parts as transparent as those in the symphony. Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 in this series (8/13) are similarly compelling – there’s a nice rise and fall to No 1’s phrasing though no first-movement repeat – so if No 4 proves to be as good this should become a Brahms cycle to reckon with.