Johannes BRAHMS - orchestral works conducted by
The Four Symphonies
Academic Festival Overture
St Anthony Variations
Hungarian Dances 17-21 (Philadelphia/Ormandy)
(these discs are also available separately)
SONY CLASSICAL - Essential
CD1 SBK 46534
CD2 SBK 47652
CD3 SBK 46330
[CD1 70.52; CD2 74.29; CD3 69.17]
The recording quality is pretty much as die-hard LP collectors will remember;
cross-grained, not suave, a little 'toppy, in your face, with aural glare
on intense massed string passages. It is not fatal but it is a disagreeable
element to contend with and not something that had to be there when you compare
the Ormandy/Philadelphia Brahms Concertos (also on an Essential Classics
CD). All the symphonies suffer - some more than others with the real casualty
being Symphony No. 1 where an exciting performance has to be heard through
a sharkskin-rough surface patina. Tape noise though present when listening
through headphones is not the issue here; it is the intrinsic sound quality.
These interpretations will be familiar to some listeners from Columbia LPs
(SAX5279, SAX5284 ,SAX2572, SAX5292) issued in the UK between 1965 and 1968.
Szell's reputation as a martinet in the Toscanini mould precedes him. There
was a part of me that expected/wanted to find these performances brisk, precise,
unfeeling. Expectations were defeated. In fact things go along at a sane
but pliant and responsive pace. Precision and care is everywhere. One is
deliciously aware of nice balances being made all the time in matters of
dynamics and tempi. There is pleasure in abundance to be had from this. The
orchestra (very much his orchestra) knows the music and knows their
conductor. They must have given these works in Severance Hall so many times.
The Second and Third Symphonies (coupled on a single CD) are the best of
the bunch with the Fourth Symphony lagging not far behind. The Third stands
out from this listening experience and also happens to be my favourite among
the four. If Szell lacks the calculated relaxation and humanity of the Bruno
Walter version (also on Sony - CBS is strong in Brahms interpreters) he freshens
perceptions of this beloved work. All is expertly limned and judged. Szell's
Brahms 4 has drawn flak from some quarters because of its dragging pulse
but the work flows with wonder and when you get to the Allegro giocoso
are there any other conductors who mark the rhythmic impact with such
accented nail-smiting power? Though I greatly enjoyed the Hermann Abendroth
recording on Berlin Classics it does not have the fiery heat of the Szell.
The overtures and variations are better than serviceable if hardly wondrous
though the Academic Festival Overture bark-bubbling horns are rather
special and the Tragic Overture is vigorously accented and develops
a mellow glow. Ormandy's Hungarian roots lend a garish zest to the 'filler'
Dances (and we should be grateful for Sony's generosity in adding them) -
definitely not mellow. Ormandy's Hungarian Dances (Brahms)and Szell's
fabled Slavonic Dances (Dvorák - not in the review set) make
a piquant contrast.
Brahmsians who do not know Szell's symphony interpretations should pick up
this set before it disappears. It has been in the catalogue since about 1990
so its future may be unstable.