This version of Brahms 2 disc has been around for at
least a decade and music-lovers (the fortunate ones of longer standing)
will know of it from many previous versions on LP, cassette and even
CD. This has been something of a nostalgic journey for me. I bought
a bargain box CBS LP set of the Serkin Brahms concertos back in 1971.
Their attractions have not dwindled in the intervening years and the
Brahms 2 is quite simply terrific.
Serkin is ursine and magisterial in his approach. However
he has a feline agility in the quicker music that surprises in one who
so naturally expresses the epic. This dichotomy is best displayed in
the Second Concerto which recording must assuredly be counted among
the greats. This is an unconditional must-have for those who can live
with the original CBS sound. OK so it is a mite grainy and just slightly
unfocused. Szell's Clevelanders have plenty of bite and a gravelly determination
that is deeply impressive. The First is good but it is a shade less
apt to Serkin's and Szell's temperaments. Gruff Teutonicism and a hint
of aural congestion are an unfavourable companion to a work that is
already defiant and taciturn.
Throughout the Cleveland strings are searching though
not as lustrous as they could be. The layers of texture are merged more
closely in a sound signature that is peculiarly American and for which
the CBS engineers presumably strove. The weighty string sound is homogeneous
and edge-of-seat alert with probing emotionalism.
The Strauss Burleske is a felicitous apt companion
to the Brahms Second and follows on - very much in keeping with the
joyous spirit of the Brahms finale. The Schumann, still quite a rare
quantity in both concert hall and on disc, is given a highly romantic
and beguiling spin. In the Mendelssohn I am afraid that the würst
overtakes the feathery faery-flight I expect from this work. The Mendelssohn
is much better rendered by Joseph Kalichstein on an old RCA LP. He shows
that the spirit of fantasy is a sine qua non in this work.
The Brahms pair have long been welcome fixtures in
the catalogue though by no means as stable a presence in Schwann and
Gramophone as the much feted but comparatively 'flat' Gilels/Jochum
I strongly commend the Brahms 2 provided you do not
demand the last micron of subtle and analytical sound.