Joseph Swensen / Malmö Opera Orchestra

Brahms: Sinfonia in B

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Seeing a Sinfonia in B of Brahms in an online list of work titles will puzzle most listeners. A closer look reveals a work that's doubly unusual: Swedish conductor and violinist Joseph Swensen has made an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Trio in B major, Op. 8, and he has used the early and rarely heard 1853 version of the piece. Swensen is right that the early version, filled with effusive Schumann-like melody that was redone into complex motivic work in the revision, is worth more frequent hearings, and it goes well with the smaller pieces included: orchestrated versions of the three Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22, of Clara Schumann, and two movements of the even rarer F-A-E Sonata composed collaboratively by Schumann, Brahms, and Albert Dietrich (the initials stood for "Frei Aber Einsam," or free but lonely, the personal motto of violinist Joseph Joachim, the work's dedicatee). Taken in their original settings, the works on the program would make a fine examination of the creative impulses of the Schumann-Brahms circle. The only thing missing is a reason to transcribe these works for orchestra. In the 19th century, transcription would have gone the other way, and Brahms' early chamber writing made unique uses of the pianos. Swensen sets out to transfer every note of the trio to his orchestral setting, resulting in a dense and not particularly idiomatic thicket of sound. There are fine moments: the trio's slow movement is one of the young Brahms' most inspired lyrical creations, and the shorter pieces, in which solo violin parts remain relatively intact, are more successful. The Malmö Opera Orchestra plays well, but the chief audience for this release will be Brahms completists.

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