Symphonies Nos. 1–4. Tragic Overture.
Academic Festival Overture
(3 CDs: 183:30)
of Győr is located in the Northwest of Hungary, near the border with Slovakia.
Its Philharmonic Orchestra appears to be a well-respected, if provincial,
ensemble. This set of Brahms symphonies has been released to celebrate the
orchestra’s 50th anniversary, although its roots go back further: The orchestra
was founded in 1894, but only in 1969 became full-time and professional. The
release takes the form of three separate discs (9.70276, 9.70277, 9.70278) in a
cardboard slipcase. They may be available separately, but, unlike previous
Naxos releases in this format, they don’t appear to have been released
previously. All have recording dates, but two omit the year, the other was
recorded in 2017. Liner notes are in English and Hungarian, suggesting Naxos
are courting the orchestra’s home market.
Kálmán Berkes takes a traditional view of Brahms, with most of the musical
gestures played out on a grand and sweeping scale. But he also keeps tight
control of the music, often phrasing the melodies strictly, especially the second
subject themes in the first movements of the Second and Third Symphonies. He is
also keenly engaged at the big transition points, such as the move from the
slow introduction into the Allegro at
the start of the First Symphony. And although he seems to favor weighty
textures, there are many moments of lightness and elegance, like the second movement
of the First Symphony, and the beautifully flowing opening of the Fourth. First
movement exposition repeats are taken in the First and Third Symphonies, but
not in the Second.
orchestra is good, but not great. The biggest problem is a decidedly ordinary
string sound, which often lacks focus in tuttis. High violins rarely soar, and
the low strings often sound murky, draining the First Symphony finale of
atmosphere at its opening, and the first movement of the Second Symphony too.
The woodwinds are more impressive, with broad, characterful tone to each of the
soloists (local color?), and crisp ensemble as a section.
are the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture. The former
suffers from insecure brass, while the latter is given a slick, atmospheric
account that rounds off the collection well. Even so, two of the discs are well
under an hour, and there are plenty more Brahms fillers to chose from. Sound
quality is reasonable, though a little congested in the mid-register and
towards the back of the stage.
probably little of interest here for collectors, but if this were the only
Brahms cycle in your collection, you wouldn’t be doing him a disservice.