Let me start with fair disclosure. The big home rig is in storage, so I heard these discs in regular PCM stereo via my laptop computer sound card, though I did get the pleasure of Grado's SR80i headphones plugged into the laptop. What would SACD surround sound add? If typical, then we might expect a subtle yet important added sense of tonal presence, along with an equally subtle yet welcome sense of warmth with musical detail. Makes me want to pull the home rig right out of storage and set it up in a parking lot, just to see if the engineers exploited their high resolution media to the full extent. Meanwhile there is plenty to hear and enjoy in regular PCM stereo.
The controversial core of these readings will no doubt be how Andrew Manze has his Helsingborg band doing HIP-inflected manners even though everybody is playing modern instruments. Tempos are generally lively, if nor outright on the fast side. The way Manze hears it, Brahms is building this orchestra from the bottom up, so the major heft in the music comes from the low to middle. The top is always clear, but hardly the sweeping and often sweetish (even thick caramel) gleam that bigger bands regularly adopt for Brahms symphonies.
Given how my tastes in Brahms symphonies tends to go, my fav shelf sets include Giulini (Vienna, and London), Levine (Chicago), and the big decision used to be choosing between George Szell and Cleveland, compared to Bruno Walter. That precedent means that it took some getting accustomed for me to really start to heart Manze and what his band are doing in these freshly considered readings.
Once my ear adjusted, and I stopped hearing the sound in an anticipatory context of more traditional, larger orchestras (Chicago, Berlin, Philadelphia, Dresden, Amsterdam, Cleveland, Boston, Vienna), I think I really started to get it, and the more I listened the more enchanted I felt myself becoming, along with a fresh kind of pleasure and satisfaction setting in.
Let me pause to interject that I have tried out the HIP-mannered Brahms quite a bit. I started off liking Norrington with the London Classical Players, though I also felt that something I could not quite identify or name did seem to be missing. Then I went on to Gardiner in his more recent HIP series, again coming away with a good sense that I liked what he was doing with his excellent period band, without necessarily predicting that I would want to hear these period instrument readings more often than need as a kind of sonic palate cleanser. Something similar goes for Mackerras leading the Scots Chamber Orchestra. Good, interesting, valuable for contrast ... but hardly what I would hear as essential instead of additional music-making.
With this set I correct myself, completely.
The huge and refreshing gains in tonal transparency come through with Helsingborg under Manze. So to that extent, I am in an early welcoming mode. Brahms used to be frequently accused of being a dark, thick, heavy orchestrator. Whether or not that sounded true and real at any given moment seems to have had as much to do with the sonic characteristics of the hall or venue, as it did with the orchestra and the composer. And let's not omit the engineers from their contributions to what bands sounded like on recordings, going all the way back.
Consistently Manze inspires his players to a relentlessly lean yet pristine balance. Taken on its own terms, the Helsingborg-Manze tonal picture is whole and wholesome in its own ways. By the end of a symphony, a listener may well find him- or herself in the very process of redefining what tonal heft means, such that it has much less to do with loudness and much more to do with clarity that subtly invites a human ear to become intimate with Brahms the genius of polyphony. Something ineffable about the composer's way with harmony strikes new touches of pre-Mahlerian size suggested through quite pre-Webern means.
If I paused while listening to Manze, comparing what I was hearing to, say, Giulini in Vienna, then Manze is much more direct, just full steam ahead. Almost to a fault, I am tempted to say. He has little or no need to slow down or speed up, and the illumination or drama that the composer is believed to have customarily written into his symphonies is left to come across in new ways. Manze has Helsingborg letting clear, important changes be rung on rhythm and that often-moving-along harmony, most notably apparent in the familiar hemiolas or cross-rhythms, explicit and implicit. Tonal colors are constantly limpid, yet over time a listener may begin to pick up a whole, interesting, subtle flow of shifting, changing colors and lights as the different departments of the instruments come and go. Tonal colors are hardly overpowering, but compel an ear through subtlety. Once I thought I was beginning to hear the music in this rather different way, I thought the symphonies (plus the two overtures and the Haydn Variations that fill out this set) were becoming newly fascinating. Though I was at first struck by Manze's straight-faced engagement with plain-ish tempo and texture and melody, as my ear changed, I heard the music as simply teeming with a different sort of abundant, musical - oh so musical - life.
The last two symphonies (3 plus 4) come off particularly as polyphonic miracles. A very happily nuanced yet remarkable and compelling through-line thrust of brilliant variation seems deeper, more comprehensive in Brahm's writing than ever before. The familiar impression of panoramic humanist intelligence that must be associated with the composer is intensified, heightened. (Bruno Walter must be smiling in music director heaven, if not rubbing shoulders and sipping absolutely perfect cappuccinos with Erasmus and Benjamin Franklin.) All the athletics and the drama do not seem diminished or flattened, but rendered in a more personal, intimate narrative and encounter. One test moment for me involves the closing pages of the third symphony. In the traditional, big band romantic approach, this closing typically comes across as the most ethereal, sweet, achingly sweet conclusion in all of the symphonies. Under Manze with Helsingborg it loses its ethereal wispyness, seems more all of a piece with the unending flow of constant variation that has come before, and gains as a substantive, transcendent culmination of unusual force and satisfaction (not loudness).
The start of the fourth symphony can sound partial and tentative, a prologue of context awaiting the entrance of the music's main players; but not with Manze. (Nor let me hasten to say, with other renowned Brahms conductors, such as Reiner's last recording.) From the first notes, we are clearly in the striking and immensely intoxicating technical presence of the same composer who wrote books of keyboard variations on themes by Handel or Paganini. The gathering forces just arrive and multiply throughout the rest of the first movement, after those opening notes. The first movement is musical and massive, though hardly stolid or heavy, even for a passing moment. The second movement relaxes us while deepening the marvels of variation perspective, like looking at M.C. Escher graphics. Sweet, heartfelt music comes across, but never, ever at the expense of the through-lines of abundant, amazing transformation. The second movement's serene, Olympian first theme on the solo horn is putting down granite columns at the four corners of an M. C. Escher round earth by the time we get to the movement's end, with the broad strings and woodwinds now serving up the lofty, serene energies. The third movement intensifies yet provides another sort of relief by setting the dance of transforming perspectives, spinning off into nine dimensions. Manze with Helsingborg conjures an unusually muscular, graceful impression, its music substantial and able to turn pinpoint on a dime spot. Some listeners may be prompted to recall those bull-leaping youths painted on Minoan Crete's artifacts. Come the concluding fourth movement, we are ready for this past genius of variation to bring it all together, rather as one is ready for, say, Anton Bruckner to inter-relate his superlative triple fugue in the final movement of his fifth symphony. The transforming, shifting tonal colors and textures add to the sense of energy unleashed, volcanic yet planful, all at once. I have always, always love the composer of course, and the Manze set provokes me to lift him up as simply the greatest musician of his era. He is revealed a colossus, like Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart; Handel, or Haydn, or Stravinsky.
Given the plethora of beautiful, musical things happening in these symphonies, in retrospect Manze's refusal to get fussy about phrasing or tempo seems wise, indeed. It is perhaps too facile a praise to talk of Desert Island Discs, but this set grabs a listener and will not let go, if your ears take at all to what Manze and Helsingborg are doing with Brahms. If I were about to board for that fabulous desert island, I would beg loud and long to have two Brahms sets in my luggage, and this Manze set would be one of them. I strongly suspect that when I get enough of the final disc with the third and fourth symphonies in mesmerizing power, I will be able to go back to the first and second symphonies and hear them, differently, too. Till then, I can admit that this set is going to be on the player for a while.
Not a front runner for anybody or everybody, perhaps? But a strong contender for those who chance a hearing, then fall under its fresh and wonderful spell. Can't wait to do the super audio surround, but will just have to stand it till the new home is up and running.