Roger Norrington / SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Brahms: Complete Symphonies

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One must already be one of Roger Norrington's devoted fans to go the distance with his recordings of Johannes Brahms' complete symphonies, because most confirmed skeptics will stop listening early on. All of Norrington's adopted norms of 19th century practice are readily identified, such as the reduced orchestra size, the minimal vibrato in the strings, the slightly faster than usual or unorthodox tempos, the taking of all repeats, and the close attention to details in the score that may strike some as overly fastidious. If these features suggest an exciting or refreshing look at four very familiar symphonies, then this set from Hänssler Classic may be suitable for exploration. However, if the oddly chilly sound of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR is somewhat alienating, or if Norrington's interpretations feel overly business-like, clinical, or devoid of emotion, then this may not be a set to own. Norrington believes that Brahms' symphonies should be heard as they were most likely played in their time, according to documented performances, and he pursues this matter as rigorously as he has done in recording Anton Bruckner's cycle. The pursuit of authenticity in itself is admirable. But the re-creation of period sounds and styles seem a poor trade-off when the temperature of the playing is kept low, and the performances fail to move on a deep level. Because Brahms' music has survived many interpretations and still shone through on the strength of its character, it's possible that some people will be captivated by these readings. But it's probable that the majority of listeners who know Brahms well may find these recordings quirky and lacking warmth, and seek more traditional alternatives.

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