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SACD Review

Johannes Brahms

  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
  • Overture "Tragic"
  • Overture "Academic Festival"
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCSSA33514 Hybrid Multichannel SACD
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There are dozens of great Brahms orchestras, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra must be counted among them. Iván Fischer is one of the great living conductors, but he's gotten less attention on Channel Classics than he should be getting. The label provides stunning sonic reproduction for him and his orchestra, and they continue to get stronger as a unit as time passes. Six years ago, Fischer and his team gave us a stellar Brahms Symphony #1 (CCS SA 28309), a disc that critics raved about, then promptly forgot as labels imploded and the download-only era rolled along. That engaging program seemed to be a stand alone, but this present issue seems to indicate otherwise. It's mostly fabulous.

The sound is beautiful, even on my less than perfect stereo system, and the Budapest Festival forces produce a rich and earthy sound that suits the composer quite well. Fischer gives us a splendid account of the first three movements, especially the two inner ones, which are as glowing as one could hope for. They are also smartly paced and captured my attention more than usual. The strings and woodwinds are luminous, but the horns also deserve special mention. Attacks are crisp and clear, and the whole experience is so positive to this point that you can't help but be excited for the finish.

Unfortunately, that promise is only partially fulfilled. The playing remains fabulous, and certainly idiomatic, but a new hesitancy enters the music here that's totally surprising and equally unwelcome. Fischer has given us an outstanding Mahler Second, a terrific Beethoven Seventh, and plenty of outstanding issues besides, so its puzzling that here of all places he seems so unwilling to "let go". The rhythms are somewhat stiff and the effortless sense of enjoyment that defined the first three movements is curiously absent. Slower sections are noticeably devoid of tension. I say all of these things fully aware that an average listener may not nitpick to this degree, and the performance taken as a whole is certainly recommendable, but it's just not quite what it could have been. As for the fillers (we've never seen these before, right?) they are well-played if not essential. Turn to Walter, Szell, or Abbado for how these miniature masterpieces should go. Incidentally, all three late, great conductors turned in a more consistent Brahms Second. Still, in better sound than any of them, this slim and attractive package has many things to recommend it.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman