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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Orchestral Works conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch - recorded 1989-1996

CD1
Symphony No. 1 (1868) [44.50]
Haydn Variations (1873) [12.37]
Tragic Overture (1880) [18.39]
CD2
Symphony No. 2 (1869) [35.34]
Symphony No. 3 (1883) [38.32]
CD3
Symphony No. 4 (1885) [41.36]
Schicksalslied (1868) [15.53]
Academic Festival Overture (1880) [9.53]
CD4
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1859) [47.54]
Two Songs Op. 91 [5.54+5.17]
CD5
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1881) [47.30]
Five Songs Op. 105 [13.32]
CD6
Violin Concerto (1877) [37.45]
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 3 K216 (1775) [21.28]
CD7
Double Concerto (1887) [32.43]
Horn Trio (1864) [27.26]
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Heinrich Schiff (cello)
Marie Luise Neunecker (horn)
Ann Murray (mz)
Nobuko Imai (viola)
Ambrosian Singers
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
Berliner Philharmoniker/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. Abbey Rd, Studio 1, June 1989 (2,4); Apr 1990 (Variations, Tragic), Apr 1991 (1 Acad, Schicksalslied), Dec 1991 (3, Cto 1), Mar 1992 (Op. 91), Dec 1993 (Cto 2), Jan 1994 (Op. 105), Apr 1996 (Double); Jan 1995, Philharmonie, Berlin (Violin Cto), July 1996, Bavaria Studios, Munich (trio) DDD
EMI CLASSICS 7 75502 2 [7CDs: 76.02+78.53+67.58+59.28+62.04+59.36+60.17]



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Sawallisch was born in Munich in 1923. Attending a performance of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at the age of 11 determined him on a life of music-making. He served in the Wehrmacht 1942-46 and was taken prisoner in Italy. His progress as music director took him from Augsburg to Salzburg, Aachen, Wiesbaden, Köln, Vienna (with the Symphony not the Phil) and Brahms' 'own' Hamburg with much else in between. He has also established a strong connection with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sawallisch conducts without score believing that the physical distraction of podium page-turning detracts from the music. As he said, in interview, a conductor should be 'so conversant with the music .. that he has the melody, structure and metre in his head.'

He is a doughty pianist as his acclaimed visit to London in 1957 as accompanist to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf showed. He returned in 1958 to conduct the very same LPO he conducts on this set (the first five CDs). Reticent and unflamboyant he has never relished or courted the autocratic dazzle and glamour of figures such as Bernstein, Karajan and Stokowski. His virtues are bound up with his fidelity to the score. This must not be mistaken for lack of vigour or spark. His reflexes are good and there is electricity in his control of pacing. More than many he also impresses with his careful attention to harmony as the wind playing at the start of the finales of the First and Second Symphonies pays warming testimony.

The Third (a particular favourite) is somewhat relaxed and I did not find it as strong as I was hoping especially in the first movement. The third and fourth movements are fluent and gracious. Overall, deliberation is too much in the ascendant. This does not dislodge my reference version - Walter and the CBS Symphony though the EMI sound is much more civilised.

The snappier episodes in the Haydn Variations are rattled along with virility and at a speed that prompts surprising parallel-drawing with Mendelssohn and even Berlioz. The attack at the start of the Tragic Overture is gripping and Sawallisch brings out the same darker shadows we also experience in Dvorak's Seventh Symphony (he has recorded the later Dvoraks for Philips). At other points, as in the great yelping cry of the violins in the peroration to the finale of the First Symphony, Sawallisch turns away from piercing intensity.

The brass are made very pleasingly 'present' by the engineering work of Mark Vigars and John Fraser even when not centre-stage and this facet can be heard again in the finale of the Third Symphony which grasps splendour more than once. It is also immanent in the Fourth which scorches along exactly as it should and which in the finale is brassily Gothic - autumnally spacious without dawdling.

I always come to the Double Concerto with hopes high. It is a work, even more than the Second Concerto and the Third Symphony, in which Brahms achieved that perfect balance between form and melody. The great recordings for me include the Rose, Stern, Ormandy (Sony) and Rostropovich, Oistrakh (EMI) ... in that order. The Brahms and Dvorak friendship, rather like that between Holst and Vaughan Williams, is well documented. In the Zimmermann, Schiff, Sawallisch version of the Double Concerto it is as if we are hearing the concerto styled by Dvorak. This may have something to do with Zimmermann's tone which here is sweet and slender rather than ripely romantic: more Suk than Oistrakh. Schiff, who I tend to think of more in the Shostakovich realm, is similarly elegant rather than humidly warm. In the finale both players develop a more resinous sound and the featherdown mercurial spirit of Zimmermann is well to the fore and provocatively so. Sawallisch makes this a three-way dialogue and reserves his most vehement impetuosity for the last five minutes.

To fill out the last disc comes the Horn Trio, written in the Black Forest the year after his mother's death. It has an elegiac feel and Neunecker's horn casts an aureate halo around the proceedings. Zimmermann seems more tremulous in this work than in the other two in which he appears in this set. All doubts are dispelled in the jäger finale. Sawallisch has no choice in this context but to be a more demonstrative partner than is his inclination as conductor. You probably will not be buying this set for the Horn Trio but you are unlikely to be disappointed by it.

The sixth disc has Mozart's Third Violin Concerto K216 in a most tender performance with a politically incorrect 'big band' sound but with balances favouring the wind principals. This is lovingly done and Zimmermann's shapely tone is apt to this music.

The Brahms Violin Concerto again has its Dvorakian echoes. This is is a lively and beefy interpretation in the grand mainstream. If you prize elegance, dexterity and flightiness in the solo part I can recommend this strongly though there are moments when Zimmermann's more intimate qualities are at odds with Sawallisch's thumpingly spirited generosity.

The two piano concertos are present in performances by Stephen Kovacevich. Struggles, tragedy, serenity and hard-won triumphs must have been foremost in the minds of conductor and soloist in the First Concerto. While I would not rate this as incandescent it in no way plays down the indomitable courage of the piece. The orchestra is given a most pleasing muscular perspective. Time after time the brass parts rear up to address the listener such that they were perhaps emphasised in the control desk balance. Kovacevich, a most fastidious pianist, is never prissy. He seems comfortably in sympathy with Sawallisch throughout. This is a very fine version.

I would have liked their Second Concerto even more had the protagonists imported the gruff confrontation we find in the First. It is commanding and confident, but where we should reel with the tension of it all this lacks that extra turn and twist of the hawser. I would liken this to the approach they adopt in the Third Symphony. It is as if someone had called into the studio 'lighten up' ... and they did. If you are looking for a no-holds-barred monumental approach then Sony's Serkin version on Essential Classics is for you. It is however nowhere near as beautifully recorded as for these London sessions. Kovacevich shows some superb crystalline passage work in the finale - try 2.20 onwards. It is winningly delightful but there is no substitute for the epic and momentous galvanic charge that flashes and quakes through the Serkin performance.

Ann Murray has that deepened oaken tone that reminds me of Ferrier. Yet she can be yieldingly tender as well - as at 1.43 in Gestillte Sehsucht (Op. 91 No. 1) and throughout Klage from Op. 105. She is adroitly partnered by Kovacevich and by the slender-toned viola of Imai in Op. 91

The violin concertos, Double Concerto and Horn Trio were made by EMI Electrola in Germany.

I am not sure what has happened to these recordings for they appear to have had little of a life in the catalogue. That they are here now is just. Perhaps their shelf life will now be as long as the same conductor's hardly ever out of the catalogue EMI set of Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

For most of us, Sawallisch comes out of this set with honours higher than those in which we held him before we began this small odyssey.

Rob Barnett



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