SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Symphony No. 3 in F Major – Sinfonieorchester Aachen/ Marcus Bosch – Coviello Classics

Fine, competitive performances of these oft-recorded works.

Published on October 17, 2012

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Symphony No. 3 in F Major – Sinfonieorchester Aachen/ Marcus Bosch – Coviello Classics

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 – Sinfonieorchester Aachen/ Marcus Bosch – Coviello Classics multichannel SACD, COV 31206 [Distr. by Qualiton], 68:32 ****:

Richard Wagner famously remarked that Beethoven’s Fourth stood like “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” A similar case could not be made for Brahms’s big, robust Second Symphony, yet after the Sturm und Drang of the First Symphony, which Brahms labored over for years and years before completing it in 1876, the Second came in short order, Brahms completing it in the summer of the next year, in rural Pörtschach.

It bespeaks the locale and season of its birthing, being a work of sunny unaffected charm. The second theme of the long and leisurely first movement clearly paraphrases one of Brahms’s most tender melodies, his Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4, a.k.a. “Brahms’s Lullaby.” The composer couldn’t help laughing up his sleeve, hinting to his publisher that this new symphony was so painfully sad that the published score would have to be swathed in black crape.

Of course Brahms couldn’t entirely escape the sober side of his generally sober-sided nature: the slow movement is ruminative and has moments of near-tragic darkness, but the clouds lift somewhat in the coda, which returns us to a mood of brooding introspection. Brahms included only one genuine scherzo in his symphonies, the Allegro giocoso of Symphony No. 4, but after the darker mood of the Second Symphony’s slow movement, the intermezzo-like Allegretto grazioso that follows provides a sensible transition to the giddily jubilant last movement, the coda of which is one of Brahms’s most unbuttoned musical moments. Here, a series of cascading runs in the various sections of the orchestra seem about to stumble over one other before the final blazing statement of the movement’s first theme. If Brahms had ever heard an auto horn, he certainly hadn’t by 1877, yet the final cadence, blared out by the French horns, sounds for all the world like an impatient moment from a twenty-first-century traffic jam. Magnificent.

The Second is usually thought of as Brahms’s pastoral symphony, yet the Third of 1883 could equally be called his Pastoral. But instead of the summery mood of the Second, the Third has a bittersweet melancholy that bespeaks Brahms’s musical autumn, which climaxed in the great series of chamber pieces Brahms completed in the late 80s and 90s, including the Second Cello Sonata and of course the works with clarinet. The symphony is based on a three-note motive that had layers of significance for Brahms. In 1853, he had collaborated with Schumann and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich on a sonata dedicated to their violinist friend Joseph Joachim, whose motto was Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”).This sonata, known the FAE Sonata, is based on the same three-note motive, F, A, and E-flat. Joachim’s motto would have special significance for the middle-aged bachelor Brahms had become. More, the symphony is often considered a tribute to Schumann in its mood of nostalgic reflection; there seems to be a direct quotation from Schumann’s own Third Symphony, the second movement scherzo, in the passionate finale of Brahms’s work, which ends in a properly elegiac quietude.

Despite their somewhat different moods, the Second and Third make a natural pairing, just as the dramatic First and Fourth do. So this disc from the Aachen Symphony Orchestra and its current director, Marcus Bosch, has programming going for it. Luckily, the performances and sound are pretty commanding as well. Aachen may be a middling German city (about a quarter-million population), but the orchestra traces its roots to the early eighteenth century and has numbered among its Generalmusikdirektors Karajan, Busch, and Sawallich—not too shabby, nor is the current state of its artistry. The Third Symphony is given an especially impassioned performance, the last movement bursting with emotion, the relatively lively tempos accentuating the ardor. At first I thought the Second just a little too laid back by comparison, but the performance has grown on me, and I now consider it a fine one if not quite first tier.

This is a live recording, so we have to put up with the usual coughs and shuffles, though they are comparatively few. Otherwise, the sound is full, well detailed, realistic in terms of stage depth and spread. And while there are other good SACD recordings of the symphonies available, this pairing seems to have only a few rivals, among which is the equally fine recording by Marek Janowski and Pittsburgh on PentaTone. If you’re a Brahms lover, you can’t go wrong with either—or both. Anyway, I recommend this recording by Marcus Bosch and his orchestra. If their recording of the First and Fourth Symphonies is just as good, that should be worth hearing too.

—Lee Passarella




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