Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 and Tragic Overture, Op. 81

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 and Tragic Overture, Op. 81, [Pantatone Classics, Multichannel SACD/CD hybrid, PTC 5186 042]

Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hans Vonk
Russell Lichter

May 2004


Telarc, who represents Pentatone in the United States, have in my mind always been one of those labels which stand for excellence in sound quality, but this recording stands out. Over the years I’ve heard a number of recordings that do an outstanding job of conveying the thrill of live music, even including Rafael Kubelik’s 1950 monaural, Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition [Mercury Living Presence 434 378-2]. These are the discs you take with to the local high-end superama when you’re considering something new and expensive to initiate the new charge card. But this Pentatone disc is in the empyrean class; it ranks among the finest I’ve been privileged to hear. The soundstage is excellent, with great stability and specificity of position, but it is the dynamics and timbre of the instruments, and the seemingly perfect acoustic of Studio 1 (at Hiversum, The Netherlands), that are most responsible for the sense of presence, the realism. 

It’s long been my belief that the major credit for this sense of realism, or its absence, must go to the recording engineer. Credit, in this case, goes to Daniël van Aalst and Roger de Schot, who made the recording, in June of 2003. Also, of course, JVC has taught us with their XRCD technology that meticulous attention to the conversion and manufacturing processes can be quite important to the ultimate sound quality of the disc. In the case of this disc a conversion had to be done from the native DSD encoding of the SACD format to 16/44 PCM for the hybrid CD layer, the layer to which I am listening as I write. (Anyone curious to know what stereo equipment I have is free to contact me by email. I will even, if coaxed, tell you what cables I am using.) 

Brahms spent more than ten years, struggling with his First Symphony. Then in the summer of 1877, a year after finishing the First, it seems he had emerged from the shadow of Beethoven (so to speak) and composed this work of a wholly different character in a matter of a few months. Brahms was at Lake Wörther during its composition and if the music is any reflection of his surroundings, it was a peaceful, inspiring and a beautiful summer, though not without its pensive moments. The symphony is a great beauty indeed, unperturbed by the tragic or the heroic. It is frequently performed and, as they say, much beloved by the concert going (and CD, and SACD, purchasing) public. And this performance by Hans Vonk and the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra is among the best I’ve heard, having all the lyricism and drama the music calls for, combined with a wonderful precision, sense of rhythm and articulateness.

I think there can be no doubt that my feeling for this disc is influenced by the tragic, poignant and inspiring circumstances of its recording. Maestro Vonk stepped down as music director of the St Louis Symphony in 2002 due to a neurological disorder, now believed to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). When I read this I thought of Beethoven going deaf and the despair of the Heiligenstadt Testament. But Beethoven went on the write his greatest music. And I was speculating on my walk through the wetlands this afternoon that a conductor who can make music this beautifully surely must have beautiful music of his own inside? I don’t know. According to Job Maarse, who produced the disc, the recording project was a “labor of love” for the NRSO. He writes, “The maestro’s movements are now extremely limited, requiring special concentration from the musicians, but they really wanted to play this music for him. It was a very moving experience.” Along with the musicianship, the great playing and the great interpretation, can one also feel the respect and affection? Perhaps. 

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