Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig/Hermann Abendroth
recorded 1949
BERLIN CLASSICS 0092432BC Mono [63.49]

Symphony No 3 in F minor Op. 90
Symphony No 4 in E minor Op.98
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig/Hermann Abendroth
recorded 1952 (Op.90), 1954 (Op.98)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0094332BC Mono [71.38]


The great regret about the first of these CDs is the poor recording quality. Underneath a very muddy sound (the opening timpani strokes in the First Symphony are almost completely inaudible through speakers, but not headphones) lies a performance of considerable fire and abandon. Any listener interested in acquiring a great performance of Brahms' C minor symphony should persevere with this disc for immured within it is a Brahms interpretation it was once the norm to hear. Here we have a performance that is unbuttoned in its passion - and, most unexpectedly for this conductor in Brahms, profoundly lyrical. Listen to the horn in the first movement, or the solo flute and clarinet in the second and you will be astonished by the refinement of the playing. It is as if each of these is a lone voice. As always with Abendroth the pacing is brisk and matter-of-fact, his use of rubato less common than with his contemporaries.

Among other things, Abendroth's Brahms is so successful because he constantly alludes to the precision of the composer's notation and orchestration. The performance of the First Symphony is far from the turgid, over-laden indulgence we so often encounter in performance (see my review of Thomas Sanderling's Philharmonia cycle for a comparison of how not to play Brahms). Here we have playing that takes account of rhythm and metre, and, more importantly, takes account of intonation. True, there are problems with some of the playing (though not the horns or woodwind which are constantly a delight to the ear) but this is of little concern when the end result emerges so compellingly. The nobility of the opening tutti is an example in point - with timpani strokes (from what I can detect) being exactly as Brahms demanded, taken in tempo and dynamically at f not ff as is so often the case. Elsewhere Abendroth achieves a miraculous balance of orchestration with woodwind and strings for once in harmony. If the final movement contains the most extreme examples of Abendroth's subtle use of rubato - with strings often pushed to the limit - it is balanced by the knowledge that the last 14 bars are played with astonishing fidelity to the text. Here the rising bass line is perfectly audible beside restrained timpani. This remains one of the finest Brahms Firsts available.

The Third Symphony is one of the most difficult to bring off in performance - its mood of introspection and romanticism a problem for many conductors. Toscanini only succeeded once on disc in giving a great performance of this symphony (his account with the Philharmonia on Testament) and Abendroth's performance measures up to that recording well. Abendroth's objective approach to Brahms' orchestration is probably the antithesis of what this symphony needs yet in the first movement Abendroth seems to find the a range of expressivity (listen from 8'10 to 8'26) which contrasts nicely with the turbulence elsewhere in this movement. The mood of solemnity in the pastoral-like second movement is most successfully done from the very opening dialogue between clarinets and low strings to the descending cellos and basses which close the movement in stillness and tranquillity. The allegretto's melodious cadences, with superbly poetic cellos and deft touches elsewhere, are as impressionistic as on any performance I can recall. When we come to the finale, with its turbulent change of moods and direction, we really find conductors encountering all sorts of problems (notably Furtwängler who never quite got this movement right). Not so Abendroth. Everything here is as it should be - the articulation of the proto fugato is astonishing in its demonic power, the entry of C minor a veritable tempest of activity. Woodwind are securely fleet, strings impassioned in the furious descending scales - everything neatly in place but without the slightest hint of over-preparation. The ending - sublime in its peacefulness and restiveness - is here beautifully phrased by the violins floating towards the stillness like falling snow. It closes a revelatory performance.

Brahms' last symphony has received many great performances and Hermann Abendroth's joins them. Abendroth is the very antithesis of Wilhelm Furtwängler in virtually everything that he conducted but in this symphony the comparisons between the two are strikingly similar. Both brought considerable drive to the first and last movement codas, and both achieve heights of poetry and inspiration that elude most other interpreters of this great work. What strikes me most about this performance is the extraordinary tenseness Abendroth builds up almost from the very first bar. Indeed, the very opening phrases are built up with the sole purpose of making this a tragic performance of a tragic work. Any number of moments from this astonishingly wild and abandoned performance would illustrate its greatness but I will concentrate on just two. The first is the opening of the second movement. This whole movement is a masterful combination of wondrous poetry and Brahmsian impressionism with the very opening, until its transition to the main theme, being one of the utmost lyricism and beauty. Here Abendroth is unsurpassed giving a fugal, organ-like sonority to the instrumentation. The entry of the clarinets and first bassoon (almost as a trio) are magically played as written - pp - almost so that their inaudibility is achieved (this is, I imagine, as it would sound in the concert hall). The rest of this opening development requires enormous balance (as well as technical control from the players) with horns in particular playing as written and not drowning out the underlying melody. Largely, Abendroth achieves this.

The final movement of the Fourth Symphony is a unique movement being a set of variations. Moving from variation 21 (a volcanic outburst of staggering energy) to the final variation (No.30) Abendroth's performance has a drive of Aeschylean breadth and majesty. Listen to his handling of the horn and first violins variation (No.23), the marcato triplets (on flutes and violins) in the next two variations or the rapid poco ritard of the final variation's close and you will experience a subliminal power rarely encountered in this symphony. Over and over again there is a fidelity to the text most conductors miss. It concludes another great performance.

Both of these discs offer Brahms interpretation of the highest stature. Although the sound requires some tolerance (considerable tolerance in the First Symphony) they are unforgettable performances. The orchestral playing is largely first class and always totally committed. They are quite fascinating historical documents of one of the last century's greatest, yet most undervalued, conductors.

Marc Bridle

See also Rob Barnett's review of the second disc



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