> Johannes Brahms - Symphonies No 2&4 [JQ]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam Willem Mengelberg
recorded 4/4/40 and 30/11/38, in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland. ADD
NAXOS Historical 8.110158 [77.38]

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Judging by some CD remasterings which I've heard previously (including a wonderful account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Georg Kulenkampff on Dutton CDEA 5018) the Telefunken engineers were producing some recordings in the late 1930s and early 1940s which were pretty remarkable in terms of sound quality.

This Naxos issue which contains two Brahms symphonies recorded under Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) in the marvellous acoustics of the Concertgebouw confirms this impression. In sonic terms these recordings are very good indeed even though there are some blemishes which betray the age of the masters. Most noticeably, there is some congestion in loud tutti passages and in an accompanying note the producer, Ward Marston, discusses frankly some of the problems he faced in transferring these performances to CD. However, to my ears it seems that both the original engineers and Marston himself have done a remarkable job in reproducing the sound of Mengelberg's great orchestra playing in the wonderful, mellow hall from which the orchestra takes its name. One soon forgets sonic limitations and focuses on the performances themselves.

And what performances they are! Ian Julier, the author of the very good liner notes, is clearly an enthusiast and he describes the performances as "characteristically athletic and powerfully wrought."

By common consent the Second Symphony is Brahms sunniest essay in the genre. Mengelberg does not underplay the lyrical aspect but equally he does not linger excessively. His is an urgent, sinewy reading though it is not as fleet as Toscanini's electrifying 1952 live account with the Philharmonia (now officially available, thanks to Testament, and essential listening). Mengelberg's performance is founded securely on the marvellous Concertgebouw strings (from the singing violins down to the sonorous basses). This is not to devalue the importance of the wind or brass choirs, both of which make telling contributions. Mengelberg and his players command attention from first note to last. This is a bracing and electric performance which culminates in a suitably exultant coda to the finale.

The performance of the Fourth Symphony was set down some 18 months earlier. As Ward Marston points out there is less space round the music because the Telefunken engineers adopted closer microphone placings on this occasion. Though one notices the difference between the two recordings I must say I didn't find the comparative closeness a great problem in the Fourth. Certainly there is none of the boxiness which one often encounters in EMI Abbey Road recordings of this vintage. Actually, the closer microphone placings bring some gains in that additional inner detail is caught in this recording.

As in the Second Symphony, Mengelbergs reading of the Fourth is full of drive and energy. Once again, however, this is not at the expense of the lyrical side of the music. The eloquent results here achieved bespeak a long partnership between conductor and orchestra (Mengelberg had been in charge of the orchestra since 1895) and also a rigorous and disciplined preparation of the music by all concerned. This traversal of the Fourth symphony is gripping and involving and it is capped by a superb, fiery account of the great passacaglia finale which truly conveys Brahms' marking of energico e passionato.

My CD collection already contains many fine recordings of the Brahms symphonies but this disc is a distinguished addition to their ranks. At the Naxos price its an outrageous bargain. Naxos deserve the highest praise for making available important performances from the past such as these at a price which will not only be attractive to seasoned collectors of historic recordings but which should encourage others to dip their toes in the water: they will not regret doing so. The notes imply that further Mengelberg issues are to follow in this series. I look forward to them and hope in particular that the other two Brahms symphonies may be among them.

John Quinn

See also review by John Phillips


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