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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73 (1)
Symphony no. 4 in e, op. 98 (2)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Willem Mengelberg
Recorded 8.4.1940 (1), 30.11.1938 (2), location not indicated (The Concertgebouw?)
TELDEC The Telefunken Legacy 0927 42662 2 [77’ 01"]


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There are times when Brahms’s remark that his Second Symphony was so "light and carefree, as though written for a young married couple" has seemed to be one of his more obtuse attempts at humour. Grand, majestic, spacious, warm-hearted, these are the adjectives that spring to mind from the "normal" performances that we hear. And has not Toscanini also taught us that it contains great drama? Have we not learnt from Klemperer that it also has a rugged depth with hints of tragedy? I’ve heard performances where the first movement’s development is made to grind away like a precursor of Shostakovich 10.

In Mengelberg’s hands the symphony exactly matches Brahms’s description of it. The first movement, light and flowing at the outset, moves on swiftly in fortes, maintaining a Mendelssohnian lightness (admittedly the sound itself, warm and natural in pianos, has not much body in the stronger passages). Small (and sometimes large) rallentandos in second subject territory are short-lived and the tempo always picks up before any heaviness has crept in.

The second movement is fairly slow and is striking for the extreme plasticity of phrasing which Mengelberg’s use of string portamenti allows. This is an obviously dated aspect of the performance and on the whole I feel the latter half of the twentieth century did well to rid itself of the habit. There is nothing more enervating than the sloppy application of portamenti by second-rate orchestras under second-rate conductors which disfigures so many early orchestral recordings. And yet, hearing the thing done so expertly and so naturally, one comes to wonder if we have not scrubbed our string-playing too clean.

In this movement, too, Mengelberg moves on considerably in forte passages, again avoiding heaviness. In the last two movements there are few liberties apart from the accelerando at the end which few conductors have resisted, and I have actually heard the finale’s second subject dawdle a good deal more in some other performances.

The controversial aspect of the performance will obviously be the extreme tempo changes in the first two movements. It all boils down to a question of degree. Few conductors in my experience have actually beat rigidly and unswervingly through these same passages; indeed, the music itself tends to impose a certain flexibility unless the conductor consciously resists it. Such conductors as Toscanini, Klemperer and Boult who were famous for their fidelity to the score actually turn out, if you try to follow their performances with a metronome, to be making little adjustments all the time. We also know that Brahms walked out of a performance of one of his symphonies conducted by Hans Richter because it was too rigid in it pulse. The question is, how much flexibility did he want? In the present case I found myself accepting the flexible pulse quite happily because it is done with such warmth and musicianship. I have heard Mengelberg performances in which he seems to be saying "listen to what I can make an orchestra do" but I didn’t feel that here.

More important is the question of the general character of the symphony in Mengelberg’s hands which is, as I said at the outset, unusually close to Brahms’s own description of it. Is there any reason to suppose this may be right and others wrong? Alan Sanders, in his notes, very fairly points out that there was not a precise link between Mengelberg and Brahms as there was with Richard Strauss and Mahler. He did once conduct the Brahms Violin Concerto for its dedicatee Joseph Joachim and took the opportunity to learn from him about interpreting Brahms generally but this is all, although when he began his career Brahms was still alive and plenty of people were around who had memories of him. As far as records are concerned, as Sanders also points out, the two conductors most associated with Brahms who recorded the two symphonies here, Weingartner and Max Fiedler, took very different views of them. However, if we come to second-generation Brahmsians, a good number of conductors who recorded the symphonies even in the stereophonic age – Sir Adrian Boult, for example – had clear memories of Richter, Nikisch and, especially, Steinbach and the Meiningen Orchestra who were thought by many at the time to enshrine true Brahmsian interpretation. So it rather looks as if Brahms’s symphonies were subjected to a wide range of personal interpretations right from the beginning and there is no way of verifying whether a particular interpretation is more or less authentic than another. Let us therefore value Mengelberg’s for its warmly human approach and as a corrective to sterner and weightier interpretations.

I quite deliberately wrote these comments before listening to no. 4, and spent some time trying to imagine what sort of a performance he might give. For this is a symphony whose tragic content seems to loom larger with the passing of time – some of Giulini’s last performances dragged it into an almost post-Mahlerian world, provoking the thought that if Brahms had lived as long as Verdi he would have seen the First World War. The question of what might have been his musical response seemed in a way to find its answer in these late Giulini performances.

To return to Mengelberg, he does not deny the tragedy – the work ends in a maelstrom of fiery energy – but he enjoys the sweeter pastures on the way when he can. The big rallentando at the end of the opening paragraph of the first movement should not lead listeners into expecting an unduly indulgent performance, and note how skilfully he moves on again before the music has come to anything like a halt. Certain passages are more in tempo than I’ve heard them from some other conductors and the coda to this movement – treated to an accelerando by Klemperer of all people – is brought home with magnificent steadiness, save for a rallentando on the timpani in the penultimate bar. There is one of his famous "changements" when the violins take up the second subject – his shortening of certain notes in order to clarify the phrasing and let the wind chords through still sounds odd to me. At first I thought my equipment was playing up! All this sounds a bit niggling but overall this first movement is well-integrated and full of warmth.

The very gravely paced "Andante moderato" (almost two minutes longer than Boult) shows that a very slow tempo in this movement is not just a modern invention (I had rather supposed it was). Whereas the likes of Solti or Leinsdorf can be stultifyingly rigid at a similar tempo, the warmth of Mengelberg’s phrasing is balm to the ear. He maintains a remarkably even pulse in this movement, with plenty of power where needed, but it is the sheer loveliness of the lyrical moments, and in particular the return of the second theme, which shines out.

The scherzo goes with plenty of energy. However flexible Mengelberg might be on other occasions, he actually had a very strong sense of rhythm and he produces thrilling results in the forte passages while holding the tempo firm.

If you have a friend who is obstinately prejudiced against Mengelberg, play him this finale "blindfold". Yes, he does slacken the tempo a little in the 3/2 section (starting with the famous flute solo), but I’ve heard more from conductors who have not acquired a particular reputation for that sort of thing. I don’t see how anyone could fail to judge this as great conducting, moving as it does from variation to variation with a perfect sense of both continuity and of the particular character of each new turn the music takes.

The recording of no. 4 is, if anything, smoother and fuller than that of no. 2. I should perhaps add that the legendary quality of the Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw Orchestra is fully born out by the strings, but there are a few raucous sounds from the wind, even spots of suspect intonation. However, I don’t think this will stand in the way of enjoyment. These are performances which definitely add to our knowledge of the music and if you have not investigated the art of Willem Mengelberg this is as good a place to start as any.

Christopher Howell


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