Herreweghe & Janowski on Pentatone: Symphonies by Brahms, Beethoven & Bruckner

Review Published: 13 February 2008


Philippe Herreweghe If it wasn't for SACD - and the fact that both Universal and EMI seem to have stopped releasing recordings in the format - you might wonder whether a label like Pentatone would venture to add to a catalogue already groaning with recordings of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.

As it is, they haven't even got the advantage in terms of Beethoven on SACD any more: Osmo Vänska's cycle on BIS is now only one disc short of completion.

Nevertheless, what promises to be a complete cycle with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe starts with excellent accounts of the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies. Like Harnoncourt's cycle, now fifteen years old, Herreweghe opts for natural trumpets and hard-sticked timpani to give his modern orchestra an extra edge; the timpani are caught extremely well by the recording – listen to them, particularly, in the Eighth's finale.

This results in lithe, muscular readings of both symphonies. The first movement of the Fifth, for example, strikes a happy balance between power and athleticism, and there's some very detailed work from the wind and brass, for example in the way the horns and oboes swell threateningly on their chords just half a minute in. The development section is light on its feet but has an inexorable momentum. My one concern is how the oboe's improvised cadenza - rather than the brief little interjection Beethoven has in his score – will bear up to repeated listening. The Andante is taken at a reasonably brisk pace so that although one might miss the imperiousness the movement can have in more leisurely readings, it is played with delightful delicacy and transparency. The Scherzo and finale are given straightforward but nonetheless exhilarating readings.

The same virtues are apparent in a similarly fine version of the Eighth Symphony. Strangely, given the fact that there is such a light touch to the playing on the rest of the disc, the Allegretto scherzando second movement sounds a little matter of fact. The finale, however, receives a glorious performance: the central minor episodes are handled with strength and drive, the whole rhythmically alert and just plain fabulous. In an extremely crowded field these stand out as fresh and extremely enjoyable readings, made all the more attractive for being available on SACD.

Two other releases give Marek Janowski the opportunity to show his mettle in three more great Viennese Symphonies: Brahms' sunny Second and elusive Third with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Bruckner's final, unfinished Ninth with the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande. Of the two discs, I find Janowski's Brahms, the Marek Janowskisecond disc in a projected cycle, more persuasive than his Bruckner. This isn't especially due to the conductor changing his performance style but that his sometimes low key approach suits the Brahms works slightly better.

Although his Swiss orchestra is a fine ensemble and the sound produced by Pentatone's excellent engineers is often breathtaking in its transparency and realism, they turn in a performance of Bruckner's Ninth that doesn't quite get to the heart of the great, unfinished edifice.

In what's generally a rather sober reading, I find it incongruous that after a steady and carefully detailed opening, Janowski gets a rush of blood to the head starting at 2'30, speeding headlong into the first big unison statement. It's somewhat in contrast to a performance of the rest of the movement which fails to catch fire. And although the orchestra plays wonderfully for Janowski, I can't help but feel that the string tone lacks the intensity of the best Bruckner orchestras (maybe a little unfairly, I took Karajan's and Barenboim's Berlin Philharmonic versions off the shelf quickly to consolidate this impression). The movement's final, cataclysmic build-up and release, although finely controlled, just doesn't send shivers down the spine as it can do.

The Scherzo receives a similarly well-prepared reading but sometimes sounds a little too polite, especially in the brass. When the whole orchestra takes up the pounding rhythm it does so without the brutality that's necessary to provide contrast with the lighter woodwind writing that follows. However, the care and detail of the performance and the recorded sound pay dividends in the quicksilver Trio. In the great Adagio, though, Janowski's meticulous performance, whilst enjoyable on its own terms, just doesn't quite hit the spot. Bruckner subtitled the work 'dem lieben Gott', dedicating it to the God he, in his poor health, felt he was getting closer to. Consqeuently, the opening statement should strive heavenward with a sense of effort. But here the first violins' opening interval is too considered; they're not wringing the sound out of their instruments as though their lives depend on it. And as the movement progresses, it becomes clear that Janowski hasn't simply decided to play it cool initially and then pile on the pressure cumulatively. Although this is still a beautiful and moving performance, it falls some way short of the intensity and sense of spirituality that other conductors can bring to this magnificent work.

Although I have similar feelings about Janowski's Brahms, these works do not necessarily require a conductor to whip up an orchestra in the same way and the care and good taste the conductor brings to these performances reaps dividends. So does the often excellent playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the principle horn in particular (listen to the wonderfully robust solo just before the recapitulation in the Third's opening Allegro con brio – at around 7'30). These are old-fashioned readings that, although never dragging or slow, do not attempt to emphasise the Classical heritage of these works. There's a smoothness and sheen that is unapologetically Romantic and unreconstructed. I've not heard their performance of the First Symphony, where this approach might be less successful, but in the Second Symphony it suits the piece well, emphasising its lyrical, easy-going character.

The performance opens gently and although there is some urgency at the build up starting at around 1'20, it's a reading that is happy to bask in the warm glow of that summer by the Wörthersee in 1877 when the work was conceived. The booklet talks about 'glimpsing behind the polished surface', yet this is not something that is easy to do with Janowski's performance. Even if the development section does introduce some drama, the sonic luxuriousness of the brass interjections prevents any of the oncoming clouds from becoming truly ominous. In a reasonably swift account of the finale, the richness of the sound again stops it from becoming truly exhilarating, enjoyable though the performance is; it must be admitted that the final bars stay a little earthbound.

The Third receives a similarly solid performance. The opening Allegro con brio is resolute and, in its second subject, delightfully lyrical, the Pittsburgh winds making the most of their solo writing. Yet again the more dramatic moments, for example the end of the exposition and the lead into the development, are just a little too understated for my taste. Furthermore, on a couple of notes the violins are not quite together with their intonation.

More successful are the inner movements. The Andante is distinguised once again by some excellent solo work and Janowski catches all the bitter-sweet melancholy of the Poco allegretto without resorting to melodrama; SACD also really offers the chance to savour the delicacy of Brahms' orchestration here. The performance concludes with a fine reading of the finale. Although Janowski keeps his players on a tight leash they play with a majestic seriousness of purpose that provides a satisfying conclusion to the disc.

By Hugo Shirley