Michael Gielen

Brahms: Symphony No. 2; Haydn Variations

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Michael Gielen and the SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg have produced several rewarding recordings of the repertoire they know best, and their fresh takes on the great late-Romantic symphonies are often presented by Haenssler Classics with some thought-provoking filler. Think of their match-ups of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with evocative pieces by Charles Ives, Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 with Morton Feldman's monumental Coptic Light, and Mahler's Symphony No. 9 with elegiac works by Pierre Boulez, to name just three interesting programs. Had he wished to take his Brahms releases in a similar direction, Gielen might have included some of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral music, perhaps in honor of the latter's famous essay, "Brahms the Progressive." However, Gielen's 2006 recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, is paired with the same composer's Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a, so this album is free of any pairings with modernist works. All the same, Gielen's Brahms is somewhat more modern in feeling than conventionally Romantic, and even the lightest and brightest of the four symphonies sounds dryer and leaner than might be expected. Part of this may be incidental, due to the audio reproduction or the acoustics; but the orchestra definitely moves along with vigor, without lingering too long over heart-tugging spots, and Gielen employs rubato sparingly, so there is a concentrated effort here to minimize the work's darker, ardent emotions and to emphasize instead its sunny vitality. The Variations, recorded in 1996 in a studio, have greater warmth and more expansive sonorities, yet this performance resembles that of the symphony in its crisp rhythms and transparent lines, and Gielen's straightforward interpretation is fairly free of sentimentality. Because these readings are efficient and almost Apollonian in their clarity, they probably will not satisfy traditionalists who like their Brahms weightier in expression, richer in texture, and more burnished in tone. Others, though, may give this disc a chance because of Gielen's coherent, clear-headed approach, and find the orchestra's lively playing quite engaging and enjoyable in both works.

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