BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski – PentaTone Classics Multichannel SACD PTC 5186-308, 79:13 *****:
If Papa Haydn had had the opportunity to ask Brahms what these two capital symphonies were about, he would have surely answered as follows: melancholy and “…I am going for a stroll in the country side…” (the 2nd), and as for the 3rd he would have said: ambivalence, and further explained “…I am completely overwrought by ambivalence these days…tragic…very tragic…”
Brahms composed all his four symphonies as “pure absolute” music with no reference to any explicit or implicit scene or narrative; they are definitely not programmatic musical works. Both symphonies included in this SACD from the beginning demand the utmost of attention and concentration from us the listeners; this is intense and agitated music, perhaps, as he confessed to a friend, reflecting his melancholic moods and life outlook…mostly overwrought by ambivalence and ambiguity. However, and lets be clear about it from the top, there are no ambiguities in the music nor in these recordings. Maestro Janowski in his own very individual way presents these two Brahms symphonies objectively without projecting in any obvious way his physical body (he is no windmill with his baton) into any obvious physical emotions that if done, in the end, would have just painted an asynchronous picture of the music. He and the PSO play for the music and nobody else, and that is commendable. It is an honor to play Brahms, however one must honor Brahms by playing his music accordingly, to wit: Come é scritto.
Janowski’s objective conducting of the 2nd Symphony is like a breeze of fresh air blowing amidst the spring flowers of a meadow, other adjectives that may apply here should also include calm and controlled pacing of the agitated music, powerful and dolce at the same time (the whole score is peppered with dolce markings). To me the 2nd is the most melancholic of Brahms’ symphonies and the music exudes that feeling as played, but at the same time we can feel his cheerfulness and delight with life in general. The silver sound of the PSO comes through in this great recording, an orchestra with plenty of guts when appropriate (Steelers anyone?) as in the 1st movement Allegro non troppo, beginning at bar 508 with crescendo to crescendo expressivo (Track 1 at about 18:35 – the A clarinet especially); Brahms did not allow himself to write expressivo often anywhere. The PSO is not afraid either to carry on with unbelievable slow pianos (and pianissimos) as in Track 2 beginning at about 1:35 (the Adagio) with some of the slowest music Brahms ever wrote. This 2nd Symphony as played by the PSO is expansive but at the same time due to the white-hot tempi of Janowski the overall mellow tone becomes dreamy and full of exquisite affection, and that carries great emotional impact. Brahms’ great chamber orchestra instrumental balance is present in the 2nd everywhere from the flats to the crescendo expressivos which admirably lend a warm feeling to the music and in my opinion this symphony has rarely been heard so poignant and delicate at the same time on any other recordings. Is this a reference performance? I don’t know yet…but I feel it’s going that way, in a sense the 2nd is a remarkable, autistic work and we should give time to time.
Now to the tricky and difficult 3rd symphony, this works requires for the most part a bold approach and Janowski was not shy with his attack (con brio – forte passionato as it is written) from the beginning by letting the woodwinds, flutes and the French horns to fully play out the fortes to forte-sforzando (the contrabassoon) as marked on the score, as well as giving way to the palpable electricity of the violins, violas (especially) and cellos in the final Allegro movement and everything in between, Come é scritto as Toscanini said more than once much to the lot’s annoyance, and I like especially the beginning of the 3rd movement Poco allegro on the cellos. This is a tightly constructed symphony with a chamber orchestra quality – however much more accessible than the 2nd, and fierce in its development all the way to the end’s almost unresolved long fermata. Is this a reference recording? Yes, absolutely! I like Janowski’s way – the classical way!
This 5.0 SACD was recorded live at Heinz Hall the home of the PSO on March (the 2nd) and on November (the 3rd), 2007, and if I remember correctly with 11 and 14 microphones respectively. The microphones used by PentaTone in both instances included a number of DPA4006’s (condenser omni-directional transform-less) and Schoeps MK2S’s (condenser high pressure-transducers). The sound on this SACD is exquisitely balanced instrumentally amid the three front speakers in depth and breadth across the wide expanse the full orchestra occupies on the performance stage. The sense of spatial acoustics is near perfect, as if you were seated on front row center/center-right on the 2nd balcony, that’s where one finds the best balanced hall acoustics (I sit there), and this is how I remember that concert, if and when I raise the gain in my system by 5 to 7 decibels, then the sonority this SACD imparts to my own listening room is almost like being there again. Somebody, somewhere, once said, the perfect audiophile is one who attends concerts and I have no argument with that, however, how nice it is to be able to give way to nostalgia and remember two memorable afternoons thanks to a humble little round piece of plastic called SACD that I can keep forever – which, by the way is very pretty indeed…the graphics!
A few words about the PSO and this recording now are necessary out of respect for all those dedicated musicians who gave it all for our benefit. I believe that in those performances (and by extension in this SACD) they did what they do best, that is, play to the best of their abilities, which are enormous. It takes a very special conductor to truly realize what the musicians have (plenty), make something out of it, and transform that into beautiful music, and Janowski very wisely did just that; I am sure that otherwise he would have been toast! He created an all around win-win situation – actually we are the top winners in this case. I would like to know where did he take lessons on how to conduct the PSO?
Incidentally, as far as I know, one of the viola players mentioned in the booklet played for the PSO and Steinberg’s recordings of the same for the Command label back in 1961/62 (the sound engineer for those recordings was none other than C. Robert Fine!), his name is Raymond Marsh and that was 45 years ago! Six other players listed in the present booklet also played with the PSO and Steinberg, which shows the current depth of this great orchestra. More about the booklet, it was about time orchestra members are acknowledged by name (though one is missing, the newest member of the viola section: Ms. Erina Laraby-Goldwasser); musicians normally get no respect in this aspect, but not here! My hope is that other labels and orchestras would follow the lead of the PSO and PentaTone, and acknowledge each and every one of the musicians in their recordings by name out of respect for their work and for the historical record. At the end of the day we all have to agree that without the musicians there would be no concerts, no recordings, no audience and no real classical music, and worst of all no critics and reviewers! Which is not a bad idea according to some…?
Final words: no orchestra could ask for better sound than PentaTone provided, and PentaTone could not have found a more high-principled orchestra than the PSO and conductor Janowski. This recording is a joint labor of love and we pray that would never cease as an example of what can really be done artistically and technologically if an orchestra and a recording label are in synch. Thank you all.
— John Nemaric