> Johannes Brahms - Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3 [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)


Symphony no. 1 in c, op. 68 (1), Tragic Overture, op. 81 (2)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (1), London Symphony Orchestra (2)/Sir Adrian Boult
Location and date not given
HMV 5 73447 2 [59í 03"]




Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73 (1), Alto Rhapsody, op. 53 (2), Two Songs, op. 91 (3)
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) (2, 3), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (3), André Previn (pianoforte) (3), Male Voices of the John Alldis Choir (2),
London Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 2)/Sir Adrian Boult (1, 2)
Location and date not given
HMV 5 74053 2 [67í 16"]



Symphony no. 3 in F, op. 90 (1), Symphony no. 4 in e, op. 98 (1)
London Symphony Orchestra (1),
London Philharmonic Orchestra (2)/Sir Adrian Boult
Location and date not given
HMV 5 72306 2 [76í 13"]
All Available only in HMV stores

For listeners who came to music in the 1930s and 1940s, Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were a sort of musical bread and butter, a standard guide to a whole range of repertoire from the classics to the moderns, both British and Continental. Those were the days when the wireless was coming in and bringing music to countless homes where little or none had previously existed. The sheer unobtrusive excellence of Boultís interpretations, together with his ubiquity, perhaps led to him being taken too much for granted, and many of these listeners came to realise only in later life how much they owed him. After the BBC had ditched him in 1949 with a crassness which in retrospect heralded a new era of musical planning, he soldiered on with the LPO and seemed by the 1960s to be gradually disappearing from view. Instead, his return to EMI led to an Indian summer in which he was truly venerated by a new generation of concert-goers and achieved a bumper crop of discs, mostly for EMI but not forgetting the rarer British material on Lyrita.

At the heart of his repertoire lay the Brahms symphonies, interpretations that were already famous by the 1930s. He recorded them with the LPO in the 1950s for Nixa (for contractual reasons the orchestra was called the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra but everybody knew what it was). These recordings had a sporadic life (Nixa didnít last all that long). They could sometimes be found in Woolworthís in the 1960s on the Marble Arch label, and have had at least two exhumations on CD. But when the Nixa catalogue came under the EMI banner, instead of restoring them lovingly to a place of honour in the catalogue, the EMI planners have so far kept them under lock and key. In the course of the present decade these and other important Boult recordings will be coming out of copyright, so I hope plans are being made for them.

When Boult returned to EMI he was allowed, in the first place, to record only British music. Magazines such as Gramophone published many letters in which readers clamoured for his Brahms, his Schubert "Great" C major and much else, but nothing was done until sessions for Vaughan Williamsís "Job" finished so far ahead of schedule that Boult was asked what he would like to record now. He chose Brahmsís Third Symphony and the Tragic Overture, and the record had such success that EMI caved in and had him record the rest of Brahms (Serenades as well as Symphonies), the Schubert "Great" C major, Mozart 35/41, Beethoven 6, the Brandenburgs, four discs of Wagner, the Tchaikovsky 3rd Suite, and probably other things I have forgotten.

Reverting to type, EMI have not exactly thrust this material under our noses in the CD era; the failure to keep the Schubert "Great" C major in the catalogue is surely a decision on the same level as the BBCís dismissal of him in 1949 (but we do now have the first of his three recordings and a live 1969 performance on BBC Legends). These transfers are part of a series of discs which can be sold only in HMV stores; look out for them if youíre passing through Heathrow Airport. They are notable for brief but adequate liner notes gleaned from previous issues (so far so good) and a complete absence of information about dates and locations. I can tell you that "Job" was recorded in the Kingsway Hall so no. 3 and the Tragic Overture must have been too (I imagine they all were, but it wouldnít have cost much to say so). This disc came out early in 1971 and no. 2 followed with the Rhapsody later the same year. Nos. 1 and 4 came out in 1973, the latter with an Academic Festival Overture not included here.

So the point is, are these interpretations as great as we used to think or did our veneration for Boult lead us to hear qualities which were not there? For instance, I remember a broadcast from the Proms of no. 1, later than the recording, which had a fierce drive and a whiplash, Toscanini-like articulation, together with more reflective qualities. I can still hear the first movement to this day. Or can I? Was it really like that? Because the recording isnít.

The opening immediately reveals a rather muddy, bass-heavy and often timpani-dominated sound, but some of the flabbiness is to be found in the orchestral attack. All sorts of small details suggest a rather ill-attentive orchestra, with wind entries behind the beat and many small ensemble slips. Boult does not often delay a climax chord agogically but when he does (as just before the coda to the first movement), some players follow him while others just arenít looking and plough on, to very ragged effect. When the Allegro is reached it is a rather listless affair, Boult apparently unable or unwilling to push the players beyond a decent run-through. The exposition is repeated without any noticeable improvement. However, he seems to regain his grip during the development, which builds up strongly, and the recapitulation is launched in fine style. He gets the players to dig into the phrasing more, and many details which passed by blandly first and second time round now gain meaning. Itís just a pity he took so long to warm up.

The Andante sostenuto is very successful, songful and leaving no doubt that this is an Andante not an Adagio. The purposeful playing of the triplets in the cellos and basses in bars 5-6 and the pointing of the hairpins in the violas in bars 18-21 demonstrate that the conductor is more firmly in control of the proceedings. The orchestral response remains somewhat slack but we can appreciate an interpretation which does not impose tragedy or neurosis upon Brahms, yet has a flowing grace which is affecting in its way.

The third movement is on the slow side and Boult makes no attempt to whip up tension in the passages with syncopated accompaniment, maintaining a light, relaxed approach throughout. It is probable that the muddiness of the recording detracts from the effect he intended. The trio is warmly carolling and builds up well Ė a greater climax is reached in the repeat than first time round. Boult allows the tempo to move forward a little but handles the transition back to the reprise with much quiet mastery.

Best of all is perhaps the finale. It does not shoot you out of your seat and you might wonder as the "Allegro non troppo ma con brio" starts whether it will not be too warm and comfortable to stay the course but no, the tempo is perfectly judged to accommodate both the energetic passages and the more lyrical ones so that the movement seemingly plays itself, building up with grand inevitability. Two points to note; the "calando" at bar 297 begins at bar 297 and not about eight bars before as is the usual practice; you will therefore notice this passage is much faster than you usually hear it until the very end. And in the coda, after the return of the chorale theme, grandly delivered, Brahmsís triplets sound very slow without the increase in tempo often wished upon them. Yet that is what Brahms wrote and (presumably) wanted.

In his very last years Boult was continually reassessing the tempi and other matters of interpretation of music he had known all his life. He also retained very clear memories of the conductors he had heard in his youth, which included several who had known Brahms himself. This performance seems to speak from another age and it is easy to imagine that its unforced warmth and natural proportions may be close to those of the Steinbach and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahmsís favourite interpreters. But this is not how Boult conducted Brahms for most of his career, and the Tragic Overture which follows reminds us of this. Here is the vivid attack, here are the soaring strings and the control of tension (the development of this work can seem repetitive and interminable but here you know exactly where Brahms is going) which make up a typical Boult performance as I think of one. So I feel that for a true Boult Brahms 1 we should look back to the Nixa recording or hope for revelations from the BBC archives.

Thereís much less to say about the second, except that itís simply glorious! My introduction to this symphony was in fact Boultís Nixa recording, which we had at school, and it has remained as an ideal ever since. An ideal seen through rose-tinted spectacles? Fearing this, I have for many years fought shy of hearing the later recording. But it would seem not. One day I hope to compare the two versions but I can only report that this sounds exactly like the performance I remember, in far better sound. (One major difference is that Sir Adrian took the first movement repeat in the 1970s while in the 1950s he did not). The recording is excellent in this case, warm and well-balanced, making the muzziness of no. 1 seem all the stranger.

As the first movement begins you might think this is going to be a very fast performance but no, Boult takes an ideally flowing tempo and sets it from the start whereas so many conductors open slowly and reach their real tempo only gradually. The movement unfolds in a single sweep (and itís a very long sweep, 19í 13", with the repeat) and, while the prevailing mood is pastoral and relaxed, the moments of grandeur, passion and cragginess are all encompassed within the flow. The orchestra seems totally engaged and there is the spontaneous feeling of a live performance.

The "Adagio non troppo" is warmly phrased at a tempo which keeps the music mobile. Boult gives the opening a sense of unease both by the fastish tempo itself and by his attention to the moving bassoon line. At 8í 24" this is about a minute shorter than all the other versions I have. Recently a Mengelberg reissue (Teldec 0927 42662 2) showed that this opening can have more sheer beauty at a very slow tempo, but conductors far less libertarian the Mengelberg have found that with such a slow tempo you have to move on in the dramatic episodes much more than Boult. In fact, the minute extra does not take into account the range of speeds.

The "Allegretto grazioso" is light and delicate at a fairly moderate tempo (Brahms added "quasi andantino" to his direction), the fast episodes scampering without hurrying. The finale crowns the symphony with more glorious, seamless conducting. I remember of old how the first forte attack galvanised the orchestra and then had the music swinging along with a rhythmic life of its own, and so it is here.

I hope I am not deaf to other conductorsí insights into Brahms 2 (my reaction to Mengelberg suggests I am not), but having learnt it this way it has always seemed to me that bringing out one particular aspect of the music means losing sight of others. Brahmsís particular dosing of his elements in this symphony requires a very special sense of proportion and the most satisfying performances tend to be the ones that sound similar to this one.

The Alto Rhapsody was the coupling on the original LP and the result was one of the finest Brahms records ever made. It provided a classic English version of the piece, finding a similar place in listenersí hearts to that of the Ferrier recording which was by then well over twenty years old. Indeed, it was not only a substitution of the Ferrier but even Ė though people didnít like to say so at the time Ė a corrective to it. For one thing, Baker is the more "modern" singer in her application of a proper bel canto legato to the German repertoire just as to the Italian, while it cannot be denied that Ferrier tends to spell the music out syllable by syllable. And then there is the question of tempi. The first time round I did wonder if there the performance didnít flow a little too easily and at the outset the old Ferrier recording (conducted by Clemens Krauss) did seem to prove the point. Krauss really digs in, revealing a Brahms who looked ahead to Mahler rather than back to Mendelssohn. But as the performance wore on (yes, I said wore on) it became more and more obvious that Brahms just isnít Mahler and from the second section onwards he didnít pack the music with enough incident for there to be any sense in dragging it out like this. The way every "t" is crossed and every "i" is dotted becomes in the end self-defeating and irritating.

More recently another Ferrier performance emerged, given live in Denmark under Fritz Busch in 1949 (Danacord DACOCD 301). The recording itself is too crumbly to interest the general listener but with patience it can be heard that this is a performance with a greater forward flow and a better memorial to a much loved singer. All the same, even this one lasts two minutes longer than the Baker/Boult and, having heard what the Rhapsody is not I returned to the later disc ready to appreciate the urgency, the forward surge and, at the end, the flowing gentleness of a performance which reveals the piece as a perfect work of art, its length exactly right for its material.

To this already imperishable coupling, EMI have added the two songs with viola. Here, away from Boultís baleful glare and with Previn and Aronowitz in mellow mood, Baker is actually slower than the old Ferrier recording, slightly so in the first piece and very much so in the second. I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer warmth of it all but this time, referring back to Ferrier, I was not so sure the comparisons were all in Bakerís favour. However, the combination of voice, viola and piano created quite insuperable problems for the engineers back in the late 1940s and the recording quality itself is as good a reason as any for preferring Baker. This is now quite a disc.

No. 3 was the famous occasion when Boult conducted this and the Tragic Overture in the time left over from the "Job" sessions and changed his subsequent career. I wonder how much difference it made that the performance was an impromptu one rather than one mentally prepared in advance by the conductor, and I wonder how long they actually had to record it. These thoughts are prompted by the fact that we are back in the world of rather ragged orchestral playing. The dovetailing of themes between strings and wind at the beginning of the slow movement finds the two departments inclined to arrive late and the first movement in particular contains any number of moments where a vigorous attack is undermined by a lack of unanimity. I donít know how this will sound after repeated listening, I can only say I noted it without being particularly disturbed by it since I found it a very different case from the general disattentiveness which plagued the orchestral response in no. 1. Rather, it springs from a whole-hearted concentration on the music by all concerned and the plus side is the sensation of a live exploration of the music. A number of points of phrasing and dynamics go quite differently when the first movement exposition is repeated, for instance.

The opening of the symphony has a powerful attack and also a mobility which escapes interpreters who concentrate on the massiveness of the music, yet neither is it too hard-driven for the subsequent winding down to the graciously playful second subject to cause the music to lose direction within a couple of minutes of the start. As I suggested, the repeat is used to add a dimension, the development surges splendidly and the coda really takes off. I would add, though, that it is the gentler passages which remain particularly in the mind for the affection with which they are phrased. Somehow Boultís famously immobile appearance on the rostrum led listeners all-too-used to more abundantly choreographic conductorial performances to wonder if he was really doing all that much. Well, there are countless phrases here which could never have just "happened" without a strong input from the rostrum.

The Andante could never be taken for an Adagio, and the very clear enunciation of the dotted rhythms at the opening (which are often made almost to disappear) gives it an almost serenade-like quality. Moreover, the general tendency is for the tempo to move forward rather than backwards. Again, there is much detailed phrasing from the conductor which avoids any risk of superficiality. This is a reading which is a valuable corrective to the many sluggish affairs we have heard since.

The Poco allegretto, on the other hand, is warmly expressive at a quite slow tempo (but, if you interpret the Italian directions literally, an Andante should not be much slower than a Poco allegretto). Thanks to a certain flowing graciousness it never becomes turgid, however.

The finale is launched fairly steadily at a pace which allows for much biting attack and for a second subject which neither lacks tension nor (the other risk here) gets hustled along. But following this second subject comes the moment which raised eyebrows ever since the record came out; a sudden increase of tempo which leads to much impassioned, if slipshod, playing until it subsides to the original tempo, only to do the same thing in the recapitulation. This certainly sets the seal on the slightly improvised, one-off feeling about this performance and I should dearly like to know if it was a feature of Boultís interpretation throughout his career, or whether he did it just this once.

In short, this is a fine and rewarding performance (in a full-blooded if not very refined recording) but not one which suggests that it may be taken as the definitive Boult statement on this work, as no. 2 can. I should like to hear the old Nixa recording, and perhaps BBC Legends might find something?

In 1971 I had just arrived in Edinburgh to study and the opening concert of the Scottish National Orchestra season was conducted by Boult, culminating in a performance of Brahmsís Fourth Symphony of such glowing warmth that I have never forgotten it. Not surprisingly, this was the performance of the cycle that I bought on LP as soon as it came out, only to be disappointed by a much grainier, dourer rendering than I had heard from the SNO. Imposing as the performance was in its way I never quite warmed to it and, returning after many years I was surprised to find that it sounds quite different now.

The very opening has a slightly unsettled feeling, as though Boult is driving the music along a little faster than the players expected, but his interpretation soon establishes itself with a powerful onward surge. There are a few orchestral imprecisions along the way but there are far more occasions when a real ensemble is created because the players are not being flogged to heel; rather, the conductor has been able to make them feel the music all together with him. Signally, most of the scherzo is quite brilliant, alternating an Elgarian swagger with moments of even more Elgarian intimacy.

Boultís handling of the first movement is quite flexible at times, and his ability to depart from a basic tempo almost imperceptibly, picking it up at key structural points, is almost a lost art nowadays. By this means he is able to express all the movements many moods Ė a what a wide-ranging movement this is - , from dramatic and heroic to resigned and autumnal, in a single line. Masterly.

Consistently with the rest of the cycle the Andante moderato is kept on the move with a Schubertian songfulness. There is no danger here of the hammering sections grinding to a halt under their own weight. This is at the opposite pole from the very slow, intense interpretation I recently wrote about from Mengelberg (TELDEC 0927 42662 2, a coupling of Symphonies 2 and 4) and it is extraordinary that two conductors whose careers overlapped could have seen Brahms so differently, the more so when both of them grew up in a musical world where conductors and instrumentalists who had known Brahms were not uncommon. But, as I pointed out in that review, Brahms interpretation was ambiguous from the start and the two conductors who recorded some of his symphonies and who might have had it out of the horseís mouth (Max Fiedler, nos. 2 and 4, and Felix Weingartner, a complete cycle) actually demonstrated that romantic and classical interpretations co-existed from the beginning. However, time has affected our reactions a little. In their own day the flexibility of Boult was perhaps seen as the minimum necessary (some even saw it as rigidity) while that of Mengelberg was maybe looked on as the maximum permissible. In the intervening years, musicologically inclined conductors have shown us what inflexibility really means, making Boult sound much more romantic than he once seemed. Whereas anything even remotely approaching a Mengelberg performance would now be treated with contempt. But the tide may turn again, who knows?

I have already spoken of the Scherzo, and the Finale in general crowns a splendid performance. Boult, as may be expected, does not let things sag in the group of variations beginning from the flute solo and there is much thrilling and powerful work later on. The only thing is, he seems to tire a few bars before the end, with some weighty point-making which holds back the onward surge and prevents the final page or two from capping the whole symphony. All the same, this is a richly rewarding performance, still one of the finest in the catalogue.

I must say I was puzzled as to why I found this so much more impressive than nearly thirty years ago, and can only assume that the performances I have heard in the meantime have changed my reactions to the music itself. I did wonder if the recording had been brightened up (itís full-blooded and makes quite an impact) but reference to the LP showed that it used to be better still. There is a realism and presence to the old vinyl disc by the side of which the CD is just ever so slightly muffled. Not muzzy like no. 1 (was the LP of that better? A more brilliant recording might show the performance in a better light) but even so, modern technology is supposed to improve older recordings.

So what does this add up to? One of the lessons of the flood of live "historical" releases we have had over the last decade or so is that even meticulously "prepared" conductors such as Boult or Toscanini in fact either varied their interpretations more than we realised or quite simply realised them better on some occasions than others. Rather than any single performance, the statements they have left us about the works they felt most strongly about can be considered the sum of all the performances we have from them. Boultís Brahms was historically important; the present cycle should always be available (hopefully with a better transfer of no. 1), and so should the old Nixa one. Somebody at BBC Legends should be doing some careful listening (there must be several performances of each symphony in the archives) with a view to bringing out a third, live cycle.

If you want to study Brahms interpretation these discs obviously represent a real bargain. If you are approaching Brahms for the first time and just want good, inexpensive versions of the symphonies, then there is obviously a lot to be said for the first Wand cycle, now available on just two CDs at budget price. I feel that all music-lovers should have the disc with the second symphony and the rhapsody, and I can't imagine anyone regretting buying the disc of 3 and 4. No. 1 needs to be treated with a little caution.

Christopher Howell

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