Recorded at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (12/1999) or at the Berlin Philharmonie (4/1996) or during the Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria (7/1989, 7/1997, 6/1999, 6/2002, 6/2004, 6/2007)

Not for a second does one doubt the close bond between the COE and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016), evident throughout these concert performances, and documented in the booklet with players’ reminiscences. It’s more about this conductor’s interpretations: what can be one person’s illumination is another’s eyebrow-raising.  

Brahms’s Tragic Overture receives an unvarnished and trenchant outing, intensely expressive in its contemplation, fierily yet deeply emotional as well as detail-studded, following which is the composer’s Fourth Symphony, which here can be a little short on sentiment, slightly hasty in the first movement, some note-lengths shortened, but the coda is electrifying. Of wholesome success is the slow movement, flowing along nicely. By contrast, rather startling is the rapid tempo for the Scherzo: no room for Brahms’s marked giocoso, it’s entirely Harnoncourt’s furioso. The passacaglia Finale, on the other hand, is nobly unfolded in its variations, built dramatically and with patience to a defiant conclusion (I thought of the “tragic” appellation that Karajan gave this movement, although, curiously, on this occasion it doesn’t seem to belong to its first three brethren).

Two Symphonies by Beethoven are included – Five & Seven. The former I found rather glib in the outer movements; there’s a grandeur to the Finale that is here eschewed by dashing through it (try Giulini’s LA Phil version on DG), and there are some phrasal peculiarities in the (twice-through, note) Scherzo; all in all it left me rather cold. (Audience loved it.) The Seventh is a different matter: powerful yet dancing (cue Wagner) in the first movement, the scoring explored, the rhythms vital. The Allegretto is solemn, the Scherzo brisk with a Trio that is a little indulged (just a little) and the Finale, while mobile, avoids being frantic.

Haydn is represented by Symphonies 100 (Military) and 101 (The Clock). The former is mostly a joy (this is Haydn after all), save for one thing: the nickname-giving percussion in the second and final movements is overwhelmingly loud; fair enough in terms of being war-like, but it’s not for me, although I know one person who will give such conflagration the thumbs up; contrarily, perhaps, I find the Finale’s timpani outburst (2:21) to be tremendous. The Minuet is light on its feet, the Trio unrelated to it though (which he won’t like). 101 is rather special: the second-movement timepiece is a genuine Andante, the Finale is surprisingly measured – works well in fact – but there is once again a Minuet-Trio ‘problem’.

As there is in Mozart’s Symphony 29 (K201): the Trio quite lovely but divorced from the (as Harnoncourt sees it) quickstep/angular Minuet surrounds. However, the performance is mostly rather glaring and lacking affection; maybe Harnoncourt was consciously making it a ‘tougher’ piece. But wait, there’s a quite superb Serenade K320 (Posthorn) that can be spoken of in the same breath as sovereign recordings by George Szell and Colin Davis, and is preceded by an exhilarating March in D (K335). K320’s fast music flies off the page, the slower stuff seduces.

Overall, this four-CD set, ICA Classics ICAC 5161, of swings and roundabouts perhaps, if different ones depending on the listener, is a worthy successor to ICA’s Schubert Symphonies from this partnership.

Schubert’s Symphonies – Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Chamber Orchestra of Europe [ICA Classics]