BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1–4. Tragic Overture. Academic Festival Overture
Kálmán Berkes, conductor
Győr Philharmonic Orchestra
NAXOS 8.503296 (3 CDs: 183:30)
The city 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.
Conductor 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.
The 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.
Extras 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.
There is 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.