Brahms - The Symphonies
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Cat No: CKD601
Number of Discs: 2
Release Date: 23rd March 2018
ArtistsScottish Chamber Orchestra
The recording legacy of these revolutionary and distinctive works serves to underscore the confidence Ticciati has, not only in his own vision for these symphonies, but also in his partnership with the SCO musicians, who relish Brahms’s highly virtuosic orchestral writing.
The SCO’s renowned recordings of Mozart symphonies are a natural predecessor to Brahms, who advances the form’s classicism into the Romantic era.
Ahead of the SCO 2015/16 season, in which all four symphonies were performed, Ticciati set out his aims: ‘The challenge…is to find a Brahms sound with the orchestra. To find something so unbelievably dark, autumnal, and yet steeped in counterpoint.’
By 2017, that Brahms sound was perfected; Ticciati’s interpretations are both muscular and energized, with detail and life in every line. Ticciati’s meticulous control of tempo, phrase shape and balance results in performances of extraordinary transparency and colour.
At the beginning of the 2017/18 season Robin Ticciati assumed his new position as Music Director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, a post he holds in addition to his role as Music Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. He was recently appointed ‘Sir Colin Davis Fellow of Conducting’ by the Royal Academy of Music.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is a world-renowned orchestra with an outstanding reputation; its extensive discography features Charles Mackerras, Elizabeth Watts, Sean Shibe, Karen Cargill, Francesco Piemontesi, Andrew Manze and Ingrid Fliter.
‘…the inner orchestral clarity was outstanding…the entire woodwind section bubbled and fizzed in a way that you would never normally associate with the Brahms sound of a full symphony orchestra.’ – The Arts Desk
‘Ticciati wrought a compelling reading of sustained intensity; as ever, his tempo-setting and his phrasing were immaculate.’ – Musical Criticism
‘…played with stunning responsiveness by an SCO in mind-bendingly innovatory mode…an altogether-fresh approach to one of classical music’s most familiar and taken-for-granted evergreens.’ – The Herald
1Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 - I. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro
2Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 - II. Andante sostenuto
3Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 - III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
4Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 - IV. Adagio - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
5Symphony no.2 in D major op.73 - I. Allegro non troppo
6Symphony no.2 in D major op.73 - II. Adagio non troppo
7Symphony no.2 in D major op.73 - III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
8Symphony no.2 in D major op.73 - IV. Allegro con spirito
9Symphony no.3 in F major op.90 - I. Allegro con brio
10Symphony no.3 in F major op.90 - II. Andante
11Symphony no.3 in F major op.90 - III. Poco allegretto
12Symphony no.3 in F major op.90 - IV. Allegro
13Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 - I. Allegro non troppo
14Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 - II. Andante moderato
15Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 - III. Allegro giocoso
16Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 - IV. Allegro energico e passionato
The SCO last recorded these symphonies as part of a benchmark Brahms cycle with their conductor laureate, Sir Charles Mackerras, a full twenty years ago, and the new set builds on his achievement by delivering performances close in scale and sound to those Brahms himself is known to have favoured. Like Mackerras, Ticciati employs a string section of just 34 players (10 first violins, 8 seconds, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 4 double basses), slightly larger than the 30 regularly used by the Meiningen Court Orchestra, with whom Brahms had a particularly special relationship in this music. Trombones are narrow bore, the horns are late 19th-century Viennese, and the hand-tuned timpani have calfskin heads and are played with hard sticks, cutting through the beautifully transparent textures to thrilling effect. Combined with the small string section, this means that there’s no need for doublings for the woodwind section – one of the set’s many glories – to be fully audible even in the scores’ busier passages.
Unlike Mackerras and other more recent conductors, Ticciati omits the exposition repeats in the First and Second symphonies (but not the Third), following to the letter the approach of the great Brahms conductor and director of the Meiningen orchestra Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), whose conducting of these works Brahms greatly admired. It also enables Linn to present the works in chronological order, with Symphonies 1 and 2 on CD1, and 3 and 4 on disc 2, so that the listener can readily savour Brahms’s steady growth from the titanic struggle of the First Symphony, through the pastoral landscapes of the Second and the intensely personal Third to the assured reforging of the past in the Fourth.
Antiphonally divided violins are nothing new in Brahms symphony recordings these days, but the SCO players are really on their mettle in those passages – notably in the First and Fourth symphonies – where Brahms exploits this, and it is in these more forthright outer works that Ticciati is arguably at his strongest. (There are few more magical moments in music than the sound of a period Viennese F horn in the Alphorn melody that crowns the slow introduction to the finale of the First Symphony.) That’s not to say that the Second and Third are lesser performances: the SCO players clearly relish their colours and the opportunities for more individual expressivity, and there is much to admire here, not least in glorious, intermezzo-like middle movements of the Third.
Again like Mackerras before him, Ticciati has clearly learnt much from the performance practice of Steinbach, as transmitted by Steinbach’s pupil Walter Blume, although he focuses on different details, such as the imprecation to press onwards at the closing cadential passage that ends the exposition and recapitulation of the First Symphony’s finale. Other localised instances of ‘elastic’ tempi, many worked out in collaboration with the SCO players in the course of rehearsals and performances, serve as ample demonstration that Ticciati has embraced the principle of expressive tempo modification and discrete phrasing (with clear articulation between phrase groups) that Brahms is known to have advocated.
Where this set will perhaps divide opinion – and in clear distinction from the Mackerras cycle – is the use of minimal vibrato by the strings, combined with frequent use of portamento: the technique of sliding between certain notes on the string. Both techniques are idiomatic to historically informed Brahms performance, and Ticciati has clearly learned much about the former in particular from the pioneering work of Sir Roger Norrington. This gives a decidedly ‘period’ feel to these modern-instrument performances, as does the ‘shaping’ of the timpani pulse at the outset of the First (the hand of Norrington again). Passages like the opening of the Fourth Symphony, where the SCO violins most clearly apply portamento, will certainly prove ‘Marmite’ moments for many: you’ll either love them or hate them. Yet it’s definitely worth taking time to live with these performances, which consolidate the achievements of Mackerras and Norrington – two of recent musical history’s most significant Brahmsians – and combine them with the SCO’s superb musicianship and Ticciati’s unmistakable imagination and energy, to create a cycle that really is worth celebrating.
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