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Brahms/Swensen Sinfonia in B
Trio Op 8 (1853)

Malmö Opera Orchestra/Joseph Swensen

Signum SIGCD191

Violinist, conductor and orchestrator Joseph Swensen took on quite a challenge when he decided to orchestrate Brahms’ original 1853 version of his Trio Op.8. It is rarely played and he'd enjoyed it as a violinist. The much later second version of Brahms’ Trio is more popular and has a secure place in the piano trio recital repertoire.

In its earlier version, we definitely hear a much younger style of writing: the Classical stylistic influences are easily recognizable and the overall tone is both humoristic and pastoral.

Mr Swensen did not want to emulate the orchestral writing of Brahms but rather to be true to the music itself. The orchestral instruments are used in a much more modern fashion than in the 19th Century. Swensen prides himself in not having omitted one single note from the original score. This was quite a challenge, as the piano part is very idiomatic and virtuosic. I personally would have changed the approach for the Finale, to make it more effective, but in mostly the orchestration is very successful and imaginative.

Brahms’ first movement, the most easily translatable to the orchestra, fares best. It is very lyrical and the 3 instruments play together harmonically and share the themes evenly. I was concerned whether Mr Swensen would just orchestrate the piano’s music and leave the violin section and the cellos to play most of the original parts, but after the first couple of bars, I was pleasantly surprised with his array of colours. The middle section was more pompous then the original, with all the brass, but it still works beautifully. The changes of colours between the piano and strings in Brahms’ version are depicted here with a dialogue between the winds and strings.

The scherzo and trio is a bit too slow for my taste, lacking the lightness in the virtuosic piano writing.  The piano in this movement is very much the accompaniment to the two string instruments and was likely to cause some problem to orchestrate. Having said that, the choices the orchestrator made are very intelligent, especially in his clever use of timpani and winds.

The third movement opens with the piano una corda, which Mr Swensen brilliantly represents with the strings in harmonics. The rest of the movement is a succession of colour combinations that reminds me of Berlioz. Listening to this, it is obvious that the orchestrator is also a conductor and orchestral player. All the instruments are used in their best light.

The last movement was the one that I feared would not work as well. It is a rondo and every time the theme repeats, the accompaniment is changed slightly in the piano. Brahms, here, uses the piano in a very typical pianistic manner, which is very hard to translate to the orchestra. This causes two little problems. The first is that every time the arpeggios in the accompaniment start in the lower register they are completely inaudible. These are very difficult and are given most often to the bassoon and bass clarinet. Secondly, all the virtuosic passages that underly the tutti sections are not loud enough. The melody is nicely harmonized and given to many players but the difficult runs are all given to solo instruments. I am aware that Mr Swensen had no choice but to write it like this, as it would be a mess trying to double such lines. None the less, this creates a balance issue between a very loud theme and a very soft accompaniment. I was pleased that he featured the trombone section with a small choral as Brahms does in all his symphonies.

Overall, this new version of the Trio Op. 8 is clever and effective. Despite a couple of small issues, a real success. Joseph Swensen has done great justice to a little known piece that would certainly gain from being heard more often.

Laure Valiquette-Talbot