The first two CDs released by the Philharmonia Orchestra with Signum Classics are likely to be popular with music lovers. They work well on two levels: one can focus on the music or one can sort matters of minor importance while listening to the music in the background. I listened both ways and found the experience rewarding.
These recordings were made during live performances but one wouldn't know except for the applause at the end of each symphony. Schubert's Symphony No. 9 is the performance given on 10 June 2006 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Brahms' Symphony No. 2 was recorded on 28 June 2007 in the Royal Festival Hall and his Symphony No. 4 on 4 February 2007 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
In the first movement of the Schubert symphony, I was surprised by Mackerras' initial speed as, although charming and graceful, the opening Andante – introducing the Allegro ma non troppo still in the same movement - felt fast. However, the logic is revealed with the tempo of the fast section: Mackerras maintains the link by keeping the crotchet beat of the Andante as the Alla breve beat of Allegro ma non troppo. Rhythm, vitality and a Viennese mood are present and - on conclusion of the movement - the heroic grand orchestral return of the first statement (initially played by only two horns, piano) of the Andante highlights Mackerras' organic interpretation. Special praise is due to the trombones for their important four-note solo motives.
The second movement provides excellently defined contrasts between march-like dotted rhythms and contrasting lyrical melodic responses. The cellists deliver their themes and motives beautifully.
The third (Scherzo) and last (Finale) movements are spirited but never rough. Coherence is maintained: indeed, this is perhaps the most important feature of this performance. In less capable hands than those of Mackerras, the almost one-hour-long symphony could feel overdrawn and disconnected.
I am puzzled about the programme notes which accompany the Brahms CDs. I checked two sets of scores - Eulenburg and Wiener Philharmonischer Verlag - but the titles of several movements in the programme notes differ from those in the scores. Bearing in mind that the first performance of the Second Symphony was given by the Vienna Philharmonic and that the Fourth Symphony too was in their repertoire soon after the premiere, I am at a loss to understand the discrepancy between the titles in the Wiener Philharmonischer Verlag edition and the programme notes. And, although I understand the necessary economy with text/pages in the CD booklet, I wish we had the names of the orchestra players included. (This omission applies to the Schubert CD booklet too.)
Dohnányi takes a leisurely speed in the first movement of Symphony No. 2. His very slight and tasteful ritenutos between themes/motives allow the music to breathe. The comfortable tempo helps the flute 'accompaniment' of triplet passages over the dolce cantando second theme (played first by the cellos and violas) sound like pearls.
In the second movement the opening cello theme is really espressive, providing an interesting contrast to a more celebral version under Lorin Maazel and a guest principal cellist at the Philharmonia's June 2008 Brahms cycle. Later on the CD the oboe gives a particularly beautiful echo of the first two bars of the cello theme: its expressive intonation without any vibrato is very effective. The beautifully played oboe theme was also of note in the amazingly gracious interpretation of the third movement which is marked as Allegretto grazioso, Quasi Andantino in the music scores I studied but is marked as Scherzo in the CD booklet.
In the first movement of Symphony No. 4 Mackerras might have focused more on
dotted and syncopated rhythms but Dohnanyi's gentlemanly speed gives a noble alternative. The returning theme played on the horns towards the end reminds that Philharmonia horns never seem to crack notes.
The opening horn theme of the second movement is a bit brassy but the second subject theme is beautifully played by the cellos and is aided by gentle first violin decorative counterpoint. The staccato and fortissimo orchestral passage leading to the return of the espressivo second subject is surprisingly warm but still facilitates contrast by virtue of playing the second subject as a beautiful orchestral song.
The last two movements continue with warm sound (even during forzandos) and restrained gentlemanly discipline. Dohnanyi's approach seems less than 'Allegro energico e passionate' (as the title marked in my two scores) but is more than credible for Passagaglia (as titled in the CD booklet). Look out for the restrained and beautifully played flute solo in the interlude and for the solemn and warm trombone passage.