Johannes Brahms: Complete Symphonies review – constantly fascinating performances

Though these days we generally hear the Brahms symphonies performed by a full-sized symphony orchestra of 70 or 80 players, the composer himself is said to have preferred smaller forces. The orchestra in Karlsruhe, which introduced his First Symphony, had 49 players, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, responsible for the premiere of the Fourth, numbered 48. Thomas Dausgaard recorded the four symphonies with a band of that size for BIS, and now Adam Fischer has followed his example; the exact number of players he uses isn’t given in the sleeve notes, but a photograph of the Danish Chamber Orchestra suggests there are fewer than 50 of them, and certainly these constantly fascinating performances demonstrate that, even in Brahms, less can mean a lot more.

These aren’t period-instrument performances, though it does sound as if Fischer has encouraged his strings to ration their use of vibrato; it’s their scale, and the greater transparency that comes with using fewer strings, that pays such dividends, allowing the woodwind and brass to make their presence felt without any over-emphasis. Fischer adds even more buoyancy by paying scrupulous attention to every detail of the rhythmic articulation; he generally favours quick tempo too, though it’s rare that they seem unduly fast – the finale of the Second sets off at quite a lick, for instance, yet never seems rushed, while the finale of the Fourth loses none of its cumulative power by always being kept on the move.

These fresh, meticulously rethought performances may be worlds away from the classic recordings of these symphonies, whether it’s Herbert von Karajan’s version of the First, Claudio Abbado in the Second, Carlos Kleiber’s barnstorming Fourth, or Riccardo Chailly in all four of them, but among recent surveys, it’s hard to think of more engaging ones.

The week’s other pick

Pablo Heras-Casado has already recorded the Schumann concertos for Harmonia Mundi with the period instruments of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, so it’s odd that for the same label he has opted to conduct the thoroughly modern Munich Philharmonic for his survey of the four symphonies. At their best his accounts of the concertos were very impressive, but there’s little to recommend these disappointingly under-energised performances, despite occasional touches suggesting that Heras-Casado has attempted to import ideas from his experience of working with the FBO. Everything about the playing and the approach seems utterly routine, and they don’t begin to compete with the best of what’s already available: for those who want a traditional recording of these works, Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1960s set still takes a lot of beating, while John Eliot Gardiner’s version demonstrates what historical awareness can bring to these works.