classical cd review

Classical CD review: Brahms's Symphonies, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington

(Courtesy Of Haenssler Classic)
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By Mark J. Estren
Sunday, March 13, 2011

The notion of performing works as composers intended them to be heard has gotten complicated, and Sir Roger Norrington is partly responsible. A longtime champion of authentic Baroque- and Classical-era performance style, Norrington has in recent years turned his attention to music of the 19th century, when orchestral size and playing were quite different from what audiences became accustomed to by the mid-20th century and expect today.

Now Norrington has brought out a set of Brahms's symphonies in which the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, despite using modern instruments, makes these familiar works sound as Brahms intended them to sound - which is by no means a simple matter.

Brahms wrote for orchestras of around 30 strings (half the size of a typical modern complement) and planned for the violins to be split left and right. He expected strings to play without vibrato except when specifically instructed - so-called "pure tone," which was the German style until continuous vibrato took over as recently as 1940. And Brahms expected brisker tempos for many movements than modern audiences are accustomed to hearing.

So Norrington either doubles the woodwinds while keeping a modern 60-string complement, or halves the modern strings while leaving the winds as indicated in the score. And he reseats not only the strings but also the winds and brass to positions Brahms would have expected.

The result is no mere academic exercise. Norrington's Brahms is far more transparent than the heavy, muddy readings these symphonies often receive. If this makes Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 less weighty and emotion-soaked, it produces especially fine results in the sunny Second and the Bach-imbued Fourth. All the performances are full of nuance and instrumental color, and every movement reveals intricacies of orchestration rarely heard in these works - except for the finale of the First, which is unaccountably lightweight and filled with unwarranted tempo changes.

As fine as these live performances from 2005 sound at first, they grow in appeal on repeated hearings as the clarity of strings, excellent balance among sections and subtleties of instrumental interplay entice the ear ever more strongly. Worthwhile in itself, this set is also an intriguing counterpart to the one Norrington did with the London Classical Players for EMI two decades ago, which used historical instruments. Rerelease of that older set would be most welcome.

Brahms:Complete Symphonies Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, conducted by Roger Norrington. Haenssler Classic. $39.99 (3 SACDs)

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