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 Recording of the Week  Iván Fischer conducts Brahms

I very much enjoyed Iván Fischer’s stormy recording of Brahms’s First Symphony with the Budapest Festival Orchestra a few years ago, and so I was looking forward to hearing their new disc of the Second Symphony to see what these same musicians would bring to a work generally thought to be more positive in nature (it’s often described as the sunniest of Brahms’s four symphonies).

Iván Fischer
Iván Fischer

One hallmark of this symphony is the prominent role given to the wind section, in particular the horns (Brahms, like Saint-Saëns, having been a devotee of the purer tone of natural horns in an era when valved horns had not yet progressed to the point of being able to compete on sound quality). The symphony’s arpeggiated opening motif, limited to notes available on a valveless horn, is a loving tribute to the traditional form of an instrument for which Brahms wrote many fine works and melodies. The Budapest horns have a marvellously rich tone that is surely exactly what he was looking for, and indeed the wind playing in general frequently takes centre stage; the rich rewards of technical innovations in instrument design are on display in Brahms’ writing, and it's only right that the performance reflects this.

In the face of such an irrepressibly joyous work, it would be wrong (as some have) to try to make mountains out of molehills and impose a dramatic tension on the work that Brahms did not intend for it to contain; and indeed Fischer and his players seem content to let the untroubled optimism of the symphony shine through. The six-minute scherzo, often likened with some justification to Schubert, is a particular delight, with just the right touch of rustic merrymaking! Another wonderful moment (which for me really makes or breaks a performance of this piece) is the cascade of descending scales in the brass near the end of the final movement that drives the work to a triumphant close. Fischer’s brass are, once again, on top-notch form here – neither too timid nor too ostentatiously forceful.

As so often on discs of Brahms’ orchestral works, his twin overtures – the Tragic and the Academic Festival – are pressed into service here to make up the full duration. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Tragic Overture, and indeed both are works in their own right that deserve to be regarded as much more than filler material. While listening to this disc I had the strong impression that the tension and angst largely missing from the symphony have been channelled into these two brilliant performances instead, in particular the first. The Tragic Overture is very well-paced, with subtle rubato and expertly-judged tempi lending it a slight gravitas and a sense of maturity which is often absent from more histrionic performances, but despite this it’s a powerful and turbulent performance – as it should be.

Brahms was relatively dismissive of the Academic Festival Overture – written as a belated gesture of thanks to the University of Breslau (now Wrocław) for bestowing an honorary doctorate on the composer and described by him as ‘a cheerful pot-pourri of student songs à la Suppé’ – but it’s testament to his skill as a composer that even such apparent trivialities are nevertheless well-constructed musical wholes. The interweaving of various student songs comes to a glorious (if slightly camp) conclusion with a hearty rendition of the famous Gaudeamus Igitur, closing the disc in the same smiling spirit that imbues the symphony – a perfect disc, in fact, to drive away any winter blues!

Brahms: Symphony No. 2

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer

Available Format: SACD