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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 (1876) [51:04]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90 (1883) [39:10]
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, Great Concert Hall, Jerusalem, 1-3 August 1973
Video Director: Humphrey Burton
NTSC 4:3 Colour Region Code 0 (worldwide). PCM Stereo DD 5.1 DTS 5.1
EUROARTS 2072048 D [95:38]


Why watch, as well as listen to, a symphony? Well, if the film direction is good, it can make you believe you are at the concert. It can highlight contributions from particular instruments. Most of all, it can clarify the conductor’s approach to the music and interaction with the orchestra. Here Bernstein conducts without score, on a podium but with no music stand as a barrier between himself and the orchestra. At various times he inspires, encourages, makes stabbing gestures, blandishes, has a reverie, luxuriates with, has a long sigh, leaps, pouts and dances. Also he clearly loves, and has insight to offer regarding, every bar. Was there ever a conductor who expended so much physical and emotional energy? Yet he was only 55 at the time of this recording and looks pretty fit, not as decrepit-moving as the cover still misleadingly suggests.

Though working with only three cameramen and curiously unable in the high-banked auditorium to show us the entire orchestra, Humphrey Burton is an experienced director who knows when to focus on key instrumental solos. He isn’t afraid, either, to showcase the conductor’s pivotal role. The film therefore becomes a graphic display of the gamut of emotions of the symphony revealed first through the conductor, then through the response he obtains from the musicians. It shows its age, or maybe fashion, only in an educational fondness, especially evident in the slow movement, for showing instruments disembodied. The fade-out between movements is also irritating as it breaks the continuity of the performance.

As you might expect, Bernstein gets a powerhouse opening to the First Symphony but I find it more heroically ardent than stressful. The tempo is finely judged. The ‘un poco sostenuto’ is just that, to bring majesty without impeding the force of the expression. The full-blooded violins in upper register have a slightly grating fluorescence but their expression is heartfelt. This is an account of purposeful progress, fire and eloquence in which all Brahms’ accents are felt. On the other hand the warmth and plasticity of the second theme (tr. 2 from 5:08) is also noteworthy, as is the sheer vertical detail throughout.

The first movement exposition is repeated (from 6:56) and the repeat seems to have even more energy and resolve. The key double-bassoon entry in the development (12:12) is clear and the gradual crescendo towards the recapitulation is as cataclysmic as you could wish. At the climax the blasting monotone horns (15:53) seem a touch underpowered, though not for want of spur from Bernstein. The sighing violins in the calm coda (16:14) are wonderfully evocative because there’s also a degree of control.

The slow movement is warm and intense in feeling, with rich, expressive strings, especially at the first climax (tr. 3 20:35, continuous timing) where a strong bass cuts across the soaring violins and Bernstein’s face is contorted in both agony and ecstasy. The becalming from 22:16 is pleasingly shaped to the plateau at 22:44, but from 23:12 slows considerably and somewhat indulgently. This is expansion to the point of loss of continuity. From 24:32 there’s a fine, serene balance between solo violin and first horn in duet as time seems suspended.

The ‘Un poco Allegretto e grazioso’ of the third movement intermezzo is very poco, towards Adagietto, but it’s undeniably graceful in being at ease with itself and in its finely phrased sense of flow. The opening is all smooth contours, playful, idyllic and, from Bernstein’s expression, blissful. The trio (tr. 4 30:05) is more, arguably overmuch, formal and portentous, with a grand crescendo and climax. The coda (33:10) is exquisitely drawn out, though the sound is a little too full for tranquillity.

The swift eruption of the serious opening of the finale is finely shaped with palpable concentration. The pizzicato strings are then expectant, though the ‘stringendo poco a poco’ is a bit overcooked. I wouldn’t say the solemn full tone of the horn solo (tr. 5 36:30) is ‘passionato’ but the flute repeat (37:05) is a touch more so. The trombones’ chorale at 37:44 is as beautiful as I’ve heard and the overlapping first and second horn solos at 38:07/10, 14/18 are clear, though you only see the second horn’s nail varnish, not her face, till later. The pause isn’t observed before the entrance of the strings’ big tune at 38:47 yet it’s rich and purposeful, though it has more breadth than the marked ‘con brio’. This may explain the acceleration latterly (from 39:46) in the woodwind repeat, anticipating the ‘animato’ as marked and applied further at 40:03.

Now we’re back in the fiery manner of the first movement but Bernstein also has the flexibility to allow a poetically measured oboe solo (tr.6 41:12) before the next strings’ onslaught. The second appearance of the big tune at 42:53 is marked ‘largamente’ which allows Bernstein more breadth, maybe even a touch smoochy, but it’s good to hear clearly the second violins and violas. Bernstein gets across the sheer variety of mood of this movement as well as anyone with, for example, another ‘animato’ bursting out at 44:0. But he also tenderly brings out the violas’ expressive moment at 45:00, a nuance that Elgar would have relished and typical of Bernstein’s sure ear for detail. The climax, as in the first movement, is earth-shattering, the echoing horns stronger still, the violins’ searching expression at 47:25 becomes more rhapsodic with a slowing of pace from 47:35, an insight into the spirit if not the letter of the music, before a resumption of Brahms’ tempo at 47:46. Another, even more defensible broadening out of tempo comes at the splendour of the full brass choir at 49:56. Electrifying applause erupts before the final chord has finished. For once I don’t blame the audience.

The sound is agreeably rounded and in surround mode opened out, though not as full as more recent surround sound productions. Some tape hiss is audible in the quieter passages but it isn’t intrusive.

I compared the DVD of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne/Semyon Bychkov (Arthaus 101243) recorded in 2002. This benefits from a smoother and denser surround sound but Bychkov’s performance is at a lower emotional, or higher cerebral, temperature. He’s a slightly more remote figure than Bernstein, though not without passion and with a nice line in eye-rolling. Another distancing feature is filming in the concert hall without an audience and the auditorium blacked out, not exactly improper but decidedly spooky. With eight cameramen the camera work is busier, with more of the orchestra seen and more sense therefore of the individual players as personalities, especially those with frequent solos like the first oboist who moves around a fair deal while playing.

Here are the comparative timings

Timings   

   I   

II

III     

IV

tt

Bernstein

16:51 

10:11  

5:49

18:13

51:24

Bychkov 

17:15 

8:54

4:52

18:09

49:10

The main difference lies in Bernstein’s slower inner movements; his second movement is incorrectly cited in the booklet as 5:06. In the first movement Bychkov also repeats the exposition and achieves majesty but not tension. He has a fine feel for the shaping of the poetic aspects but in the more heroic brings rhetoric rather than compelling progression. Ultimately my impression is of a stylish ensemble sound, well drilled, but one which rather lacks what Bernstein’s has in abundance: a sense of occasion.

However, I find Bychkov’s slow movement more satisfying because it’s smoother, more relaxed and has a better sense of structure than Bernstein’s. Although the strings aren’t so rich, they have a pleasingly veiled quality, more classically contained like the movement as a whole. It’s exquisitely done but the emphases are still there.

I prefer Bychkov’s intermezzo too. His idyll is more vibrant, with more movement to it and a more animated trio. Which is to say there’s no variation in tempo: Brahms didn’t mark any. So the movement is shown all of a piece.

Bychkov begins the finale with a kind of musing sense of mystery, the strings’ pizzicato passages more questing than dramatic. The horn solo is fruitier than Bernstein’s but not really ‘passionato’ either. The big string tune is more objective and formal, while he also speeds up the woodwind repeat before the ‘animato’. But thereafter it’s all rather streamlined without the impact of Bernstein. Bychkov is at his best in the becalming passage, bars 293-303, marked ‘calando’, gradually diminishing, after the second horns’ duet, before a gentle resumption of the ‘animato’.

Turning to the Third Symphony, Bernstein’s performance is highly variegated. It begins darkly. The ‘passionato’ marking for the violins at the opening is quite fiercely realized and the tempo an expansive Allegro con brio. But the second theme, on clarinets and bassoons (tr. 8 56:47) is mellifluous and lilting. On its repeat at 57:02 Bernstein visually impersonates a charming waltz. But the rapid crescendo and diminuendo of the strings’ response at 57:30 is given its full expressiveness while there’s a touch lingering on the return of the opening motto at 57:37. Its reappearances are always made crystal clear. The exposition repeat is made and this reinforces the stormy feel. The second theme seems more thoughtful, even though Bernstein blows a kiss at a player at 60:23, the strings’ response more wistful.

The development is turbulent then slows up considerably from 62:59 for the horn and oboe musings, well before the ‘poco rit’ at 63:26. So ‘Un poco sostenuto’ at 63:40 is tiptoe stuff to make way for a steelier, stern ‘Tempo I’ recapitulation at 64:14. Even the sweet reflections on the first violins at 65:02 are rather wanly winsome.

The slow movement here is a total contrast in its sunny gentleness with fine, smooth and chaste woodwind ensemble to the fore and the strings a dusky background. The third theme, on clarinets and bassoons (tr. 9 71:58) is savoured with greater leisure, yet with the gentle mood maintained this is quite magical. At 74:55 the return of the opening theme, its lead-in smoothly effected, is freer, more homely and companionable than before. The coda (76:15) is more expansive and a mite indulgent but makes a glorious golden sunset of soaring violins.

Unlike his First Symphony Bernstein finds a genuine ‘Poco Allegretto’ in this third movement intermezzo. The strings’ opening retains the freedom and flexibility found latterly in the previous movement. The outcome is expressive and winsome, with both beauty and a certain fragility. The more brooding strings’ only passages in the trio (eg. tr. 10 81:01), are taken a little more slowly but Bernstein always returns to the opening tempo. Only in the coda (83:56) is the expansiveness a touch extravagant.

The finale begins with a little more urgency and restlessness, as appropriate to its Allegro marking. Egged on by Bernstein, a great eruption from the trombones (tr. 11 85:29) ushers in an alacritous second theme. A third, more heroic theme (86:05) is somewhat thin in tone from first the cellos and later the violins, not as assured as might be but growing more resolute as it continues. The development and its climax are formal and rigorous. But this symphony’s real climax is that soft moment of transformation from F minor to F major at the oboe entry (91:56), achieved here with telling sleight of hand. After this the spotlit brass chorale from 92:32 is treated by Bernstein as a humble hymn of thanksgiving.

For the Third Symphony I compared the DVD of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington (Hanssler Classic 93903) recorded in 2005. This has a clean textured, discreet surround sound and celebrates the music in an attractive, rather fastidious, manner, less emotional than Bernstein. Norrington’s performance, like Bychkov’s, is filmed in the concert hall without an audience. With six cameramen the camera work is busy enough, with plenty of the orchestra seen and relatively little attention given to Norrington. He’s affable but his economy of gesture is far less demonstrative than Bernstein.

Here are the comparative timings

 

Timings   

   I   

II

III     

IV

tt

Bernstein

14:19 

9:15  

5:47

9:49

39:10

Norrington 

12:09 

8:43

5:53

8:21

35:07

Norrington is swifter throughout except the intermezzo. His first movement is leaner and brighter. He argues in his DVD extra introduction its rhythm and approach is modelled on Schumann’s Third Symphony and pictures it as Brahms swimming in the North Sea. He did! So yes, horns blaze but strings also skip with superb clarity and vibrato free sheen. He also repeats the exposition. The second theme isn’t a change of mood, though it’s pleasantly relaxed. It’s part of the vibrant continuity and not to be, like Bernstein’s, specially savoured. The development is vigorous but there’s no turmoil. I think this relatively angst free approach suits this movement better.

Norrington’s slow movement is smooth and streamlined, an Andante close to Allegretto. The opening theme is serene but not as sublime as Bernstein’s. However, I prefer Norrington’s presentation of the movement all of a piece. The central section doesn’t change tempo or mood, though the third theme is a touch slower and more thoughtful. Norrington conveys the emotion through transparency of texture rather than Bernstein’s emphasis of dynamic contrasts. Norrington’s coda therefore seems relatively sedate but still glistens.

In the intermezzo Norrington is melancholic where Bernstein is autumnal. Norrington makes it subdued, elegiac and, like Bernstein, shows a touch of fragility. Norrington does this partly by reducing his strings, with at least a third not playing. One way of realizing Brahms’ ‘mezza voce’ marking for the opening theme. His trio is more urgent than Bernstein’s masterly lighter pointing, but his strings’ response is of a more sensitively shaded expansiveness.

At its consistently maintained fast pace Norrington’s finale emerges more all of a piece than Bernstein’s. It’s less dramatic but its clean line is satisfying, as is the jollier heroic, dashing quality the third theme has. And the cross rhythms, especially from the horns, in the climactic passages come across stimulatingly. Norrington charts the musical progression, how the opening theme transforms, where Bernstein vividly expresses the emotive progression. Norrington’s transition to the major is delicately sunny, the following chorale glowing against a sensitive shimmer of strings.

To conclude, Bernstein’s performances don’t work all the time for me but the Israel Philharmonic play their hearts out for him. And you can see why. When the conductor lives and loves every bar and can realize so many nuances thereby, how could they not. This is a special experience which it’s a privilege to be able to share. It has unquestionably added to my understanding of these symphonies.

Michael Greenhalgh


 



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