Sunday, August 24, 2008

Comparing Recordings: Brahms Symphony #2: Boston vs. Philadelphia

Today I'll evaluate a second version of Brahms' Second Symphony and use the opportunity to get to know this beautiful work even more intimately.
Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
I'll spend a fair portion of this post highlighting differences between today's recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the more polished, almost mistake-free version by the Boston Symphony Orchestra that we listened to back in April.

Before we get started, however, let me be clear on one point: despite the fact that I'll be citing strengths and weaknesses of one performance versus another, the actual differences in quality between these two performances is extremely small. So small, in fact, that it's simply further proof of my prior assertion that you can purchase pretty much any recording of any symphony performed by any major orchestra (think NFL cities), and it will be an excellent recording.

Still, there is a detectable quality difference between these two performances--and in my opinion the Boston Symphony Orchestra's version of Brahms' Second is slightly better than the Philadelphia Orchestra's. While Philly's string section is, surprisingly, far more expressive than Boston's, its woodwind and brass sections have occasional distracting lapses (I'll point out a few below), and it's these lapses that slightly drag down Philly's overall performance quality. Boston has more talent and consistency across its entire orchestra and it simply records a cleaner performance.

Listener notes for Brahms' Second Symphony:
1) A perfect example of a lapse in the Philadelphia recording is the whiny and wimpy trombone entrance at the 11:50 mark of the first movement. They don't sound like they were quite ready to play, and you can hear the difference ten seconds later when they repeat the part again. That time, they sounded like they were actually ready to go.

2) However, you can hear great examples of the expressiveness of Philly's string section throughout the first movement. A good section to compare the two orchestras is at the 15:29 mark in the Philly recording (this same passage is at 16:08 in the BSO recording). If you have each of these recordings, listen to both passages and see if you don't agree that Philly's strings play this part with more heart and soul than Boston. It just goes to show how a performance can still be beautiful and emotional even if it has a few imperfections here and there.

3) No doubt about it, the woodwind section is one of the weakest links of the Philly symphony. A typical example: the 1:09 mark in the fourth movement when the clarinet plays a brief solo. He comes in off-key and his tone sounds pinched and nasal.

Granted, that solo is extremely difficult--the poor clarinet player has to traverse about a two-and-a-half-octave range in just a couple of seconds. It's nearly impossible to play something like that on a clarinet while maintaining an easy rounded tone, so I'll cut him a tiny bit of slack here. But again, a comparison of this passage to the BSO recording (at 1:09 in the fourth movement on that disc), is instructive: the BSO's principal clarinetist plays the part, comes in totally in tune, and maintains a rounded and less strained tone.

4) The fourth movement of this symphony always lulls me with the soft opening, only to jolt me upright in my seat when the main theme begins, loudly, at the 0:28 mark. No matter how many times I've listened to this symphony, it makes me jump every time.

5) Another good comparison point between these two recordings is the last minute or so of the fourth movement. Here's where Boston's brass section fires up a really rich and deep pyramid of sound for the symphony's finale. All of the brass instruments are perfectly in balance, from the tubas creating a massive sonic foundation to the trumpets ringing out over the top of it all. It is beautiful to hear.

Philly's guys just don't seem to have the ability to do this: its trombones let it rip for a brief moment at 8:15 in the fourth movement (compare that same part at 8:28 in the fourth movement on the BSO CD), but they're surrounded by weakish trumpets and a barely audible tuba. There's no triumph and no power here--and certainly nothing like the rich sound pyramid of Boston's brass section. Yes Philly's strings might be more expressive, but at the end of this dramatic symphony you need some serious brass to get at all of the gripping emotion that Brahms wrote into this score. That's what the BSO has that Philly lacks, and that's a big part of what makes the BSO performance just a little bit better overall.

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