“Melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one,” Brahms wrote of Pörtschach, where he penned his Second Symphony. The navigation of this pastoral lyricism and a darker character below the surface can make or break any interpretation of the oft-recorded symphony.
Violinist and conductor Thomas Zehetmair’s recording with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra’s own label has neither the gleaming dynamism of Andris Nelsons’ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last year, or the expansiveness of Asher Fisch’s with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra the year before, offering instead a distinctive timbre and supple, elastic energy.
Zehetmair draws on the Meiningen tradition (based on markings in the scores of Fritz Steinbach, a champion of Brahms) in his interpretation, using a smaller complement of strings than is often employed. This set-up gives the work an agile, chamber music feel, imbued – particularly in the first movement – with a flexible rubato, the sonic balance weighted in favour of wind and brass. Zehetmair gives the work a lean, wiry feel, with some darkly anxious moments in the second movement and a brisk, punchy finale.
There are so many recordings of Brahms’ Second Symphony in the catalogue that they, like the melodies at Pörtschach, can get underfoot – but this one is certainly worth picking up for a listen.