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Symphony no. 3 in F ; Violin Concerto ; Hungarian Dances nos. 1 and 5
Anne-Sophie Mutter, BPO, Karajan.
Sonata for violin and piano in G Zukerman, Barenboim
3 Intermezzi Op 117; Six Pieces for piano, Op 118.   Wilhelm Kempff
Alto Rhapsody Christa Ludwig, Vienna P0 and Choir, Bohm
Recordings date from 1960 to 1989.
DG Panorama 469 124-2. 2 CDs at a bargain price.

What a genius Brahms was!

In addition, he was a thoroughly likeable man. Although in love with Robert Schumann's wife he never acted with impropriety . Dvorak may not have been the great success he was... had it not been for Brahms. He was a hearty man enjoying his beer with his students hence the Academic Festival Overture. He was said to be anti-Semitic but , if that is true, it was a common disease in central Europe at the time. This massive bearded giant of a man who smoked powerful cigars and seemed to live on black coffee wrote music that will endure for ever.., from the formidable early piano sonatas and the truly spectacular first Piano Concerto to the intimacy of his under-rated songs and chamber works to the final years of mellow masterpieces. There is no clarinet work like the Clarinet Quintet in B minor if this is the work of a crusty old bachelor we can forgive him his crustiness..

The symphonies are all magnificent and different one from the other and the claim that his first symphony was really Beethoven's Tenth is unfair. But so are many statements. Walton hated the claim that he was Elgar's successor. In the case of Brahms Symphony no. 1 we have an amazing and original achievement .. from the heartbeats of the opening six/eight passage to the splendour of the closing choral like movement. Much as I adore Beethoven, Brahms First is not Beethoven's Tenth.

Brahms Second Symphony sometimes referred to as his Pastorale by those who want to continue the unfair comparison with Beethoven could be called The Seasons. I used to find the leisurely first three movements could be tedious and the finale was its only redeeming feature. But that was when I was sixteen. Sir Adrian Boult, not renowned for his Brahms but, nonetheless amazingly good at it, gave a performance that converted me to this symphony and the exuberance of the finale bowled us all over.

My lack of admiration for Karajan is known but I set aside all my feelings and sat down with the score of the Third Symphony and played the disc. Apart from the technical worry of the buzzy bass which was there on all the machines I used this performance is disappointing. The ponderous bass makes it too heavy and the rising horn figure in the opening theme is lost under a density of strings. There is no feeling in the piece. Goodness, it is a romantic symphony. This symphony also has a very definite character. The quick movements end quietly and this lends to the view that the work is a thoughtful treatise not the overweight Teutonic piece that Karajan makes it. It need so much more than Karajan can give. It needs more space, more love and less conductor exhibitionism. There is a coldness and clinical feel about Karajan. Fritz Reiner excels in this glorious piece, Bernstein is very good but Istvan Kertesz was best. He understands the music and his Brahms is exemplary.

There are so many other problems with the Karajan. The counterpoint five minutes into the finale is lost in very flabby conducting.This is a poor performance.

The Violin Concerto of Brahms is an all-time great. The big orchestral introduction lacks polish and refinement under Karajan and it does not hang together, another example of inadequate conducting skills. By comparison, listen to Isaac Stern and Eugene Ormandy and you will hear the difference. Mutter is a marvellous player and when she enters things improve.., as if Karajan was not getting his own way any more. (If I am allowed an aside, her performance of the -Sibelius with Andre Previn is a must. Commerical over.)

I wonder how Ms Mutter would have fared with a better conductor in the Brahms. She has the class and pedigree but it is a pity about the conductor. When the soloist is silent you can hear that the style and control is so completely different. The orchestral tuttis are crude and raw.

The slow movement is very difficult to bring off as to orchestral balance and I once saw Karajan double the woodwind solos in a performance of this work. That should never be done. Mutter's playing is lovely but she has no support in that same essential vein. Karajan is an insensitive conductor.

I would have preferred more attack in the finale. Again the accents in the orchestra are turned by Karajan into caricature, as does Simon Rattle. This caricature of sudden accents and unauthorised surges of sound makes the music sound banal and cheap. It is a pity for this movement is one of great joy and playfulness. The performance needed to go up a gear. The sound is a bit rough too and, at other times, rougher still.

The Hungarian Dances do not sparkle and Number 5 is simply awful. Its sound decidedly vulgar and crude. This is not gypsy music but a drunken session in a brewery. Ghastly!

Karajan was a very limited conductor. Search in vain, for example, to see if he ever performed any really modern difficult works.

The Violin Sonata no. I is a super piece.. heartfelt, melodious, mellow but spoiled in this recording by Barenboim's dominance. The simply perfect theme of the opening movement is given a glowing autumnal sunlight by Zukerman but Barenboim has not the same sensitivity. Pity. Barenboim is in control in a very arrogant way making it an unequal partnership. He spoils a glorious sonata. He makes the slow movement strident at times and adopts his infuriating clumping piano style.

The Three Intermezzi Op 117 are charming pieces. The first suggests a hymn tune and the second is an example of introspection, something very personal and compelling. The Piano Pieces Op 118 may be too personal for some but these performances show Kempff as a very fine pianist in contrast to Barenboim.

Karl Bohm also shows us how vastly superior a conductor he was to Karajan... and I mean vastly. His rendering of the Alto Rhapsody is very fine. The praise meted out to Kathleen Ferrier's performance under Clemens Krauss was over the top. She had a lovely voice but, musically, little else. Ludwig puts her in the darkest shade.

I remember my first hearing of this masterpiece in the 1960s with the superlative Sybil Michelow, a real contralto. The performance that day stills haunts me with a glowing affection.

Ludwig's voice has a slight echo in this recording as if she is in a vast building but her voice and understanding of this work is evident. It is a pity that the recording lets the performance down.

Everyone loves the final section with the male chorus. Ludwig and Bohm are truly magnificent... slightly on the slow side but the performance is heart rending and profoundly moving. It is one of the most sublime passages of music known to man. I am not ashamed to say that it always brings tears to my old eyes!

But Brigitte Faessbender is even better. Her performance is so different .... almost operatic ... certainly legendary

I will not award stars for recordings and performances. The text makes that clear.

David Wright

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