> BRAHMS Symphony 3 etc Mengelberg 8110164 [JQ]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS
Academic Festival Overture, Op.* [11.08]
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (3rd Movement only)** [4.27]
Symphony No 3 in F major, Op. 90*** [35.13]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81**** [14.36]
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conducted by Willem Mengelberg
Recorded in the Concertgebouw *30 May, 1930; ** 31 May, 1930; *** 10 May, 1931; **** 17 April, 1942
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110164 [65.24]


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It was only a couple of months ago that I gave a warm welcome to a previous Naxos issue which coupled recordings by Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Brahms’ Second and Fourth Symphonies. I concluded my review by expressing the hope that more such releases would soon follow and I am now delighted to find that this has happened.

The recordings on the previous CD both originated from Telefunken masters and dated from 1940 and 1938 respectively. All but one of the performances (the Tragic Overture) presented here are earlier and are recordings made by Columbia. The recordings have been remastered by Ward Marston who, in an accompanying note, draws attention to the greater surface hiss associated with Telefunken recordings due to their use of shellac for 78s. Thus, ironically, it is the latest recording which evidences the most surface noise on this CD. However, it must be stressed that the quality of the performances throughout soon transcends any sonic limitations.

As was the case with the previous release, Mengelberg’s performances of these works are gripping and dynamic. In his excellent notes Ian Julier describes the account of the Academic Festival Overture as ‘exhilarating’. I’m not sure that’s the word I would choose. Julier very rightly comments that "from the very opening furtive tread, it bristles with expectancy..". As far as I’m concerned this strikes me as being a very serious, rather dark-hued account of the work. I found it bracing and, like Julier, enjoyed it greatly. (It never ceases to fascinate me how the same performance of a piece of music can evoke different responses, both equally valid, in different listeners.)

I completely share Ian Julier’s enthusiastic response to Mengelberg’s account of the Third Symphony. I’m sure a purist could find umpteen occasions where the conductor departs from the letter of the score, especially in matters of tempo modifications. What matters, however, is that this is a totally involving performance from first to last. Again and again one marvels at the rapport between Mengelberg and his players, a rapport which had been built up, by that time, over a period of 36 years. The string playing is aristocratic and committed and the wind choir is no less distinguished.

The first movement is propelled along with a teeming sense of urgency but is never over-driven and Mengelberg displays a wonderful ability to draw out from his players just the right degree of flexibility within a phrase. I referred to urgency but listeners will find that all the moments of repose are diligently observed. The andante flows easefully and naturally, the supremely eloquent wind principals caressing the opening phrases. I’m sure the performance was the product of long and detailed preparation but it never sounds calculated; instead there is a fine sense of spontaneity.

Of the poco allegretto Ian Julier comments that it "moves fluently but voiced full of yearning." Just so. Further comment by me would be superfluous. With the performance capped by a commanding account of the finale this seems to me to be a recording which all Brahms devotees will wish to hear.

Sadly, Mengelberg made no commercial recording of the First Symphony though a number of ‘live’ performances have found their way onto CD. The recording of the third movement which is included here was made as the fourth side of the 78 release of the Academic Festival Overture. It is a fleet account of the movement, rhythmically alert and featuring yet more evidence of the superb quality of the Concertgebouw’s wind section.

To complete the CD we are offered a dark, trenchant account of the Tragic Overture. This is a blazing, highly charged reading. To quote Julier again "the dark recesses of the work have rarely been so vehemently and unsettlingly explored." This sort of performance banishes any thoughts of Brahms as a comfortable, bourgeois composer.

This is a fascinating and highly stimulating CD. How fortunate we are that sixty years or more after these recordings were made they are once again widely available in fine transfers (and at such a ridiculously cheap price) for us to enjoy and learn from. Urgently recommended. More, please, Naxos.

John Quinn

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