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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    


Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony no.41 K551
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony no.1 op.68
Bremen State Philharmonic Orchestra/Clemens Krauss
Recorded in the Grosser Saal der Glocke, Bremen, 13 March 1952
TAHRA TAH455 (64’58")

Tahra


One of the most famous recorded performances of Brahms’s First – and justifiably so – was given by Wilhelm Furtwångler a little under a year previously to this, with Hamburg’s North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, not so far away in distance either. Legend has it that the conductor arrived by plane in the morning, conducted the concert in the evening – and that was it. If the legend is true, the tightness of the performance is as miraculous as its intensity. Something similar seems to have happened in Bremen a year later, only with less Olympian results. An orchestra that in the first movement of the Jupiter appear never to have seen Krauss before transform literally movement by movement into a musical organism breathing and playing as one to exhilarating effect.

Tahra’s policy in this anniversary edition of releasing complete concerts is in fact vindicated here, as we have a precious opportunity to hear and understand how musicians outside the recording studio are humans and not instruments with muscles attached: the messy opening chord of the Jupiter is as essential a part of that experience as the thumping power of the coda to the Brahms. It would have been all the more complete if the tapes had included applause, but that is denied us.

Basic unsteadiness sabotages the whole first movement of the Jupiter – sometimes to comic effect, as at Figure B when Krauss picks up the tempo to the point where string articulation is apparently impossible: all is busyness and noise. Flow already starts to succeed haste in the slow movement, graced by some gorgeously sung lines from the clarinet and cellos, but the last bars, taken completely in tempo, lose that poise. At a more sensible speed the Minuet and Trio (with all repeats; the other movements have none) gain wit and charm, especially the end of the trio with its unfinished phrase, which Krauss makes hang in the air like a throwaway question. More scrappy playing and timpani that sound as though they have been borrowed from a school barely cloud my enjoyment of the finale’s high spirits and Krauss’s clear delineation of the fugal lines. Grandeur is sacrificed with the repeats, but Krauss’s approach makes a change from the portentous ‘summation of Mozart’s symphonic oeuvre’ heard in versions by Karajan, Bernstein and Barenboim.

Those wayward timpani are already more focused for the tattoo which opens Brahms’s First, and on their foundation Krauss builds a sombre introduction, from which the fast and flexible allegro springs as all the more of a surprise. He disdains sharp accents, and the orchestra don’t attempt them at this tempo, but the argument of the music is all there, instantiating Krauss’s aim, stated in the booklet, ‘to give shape to the music beyond the actual notes’. No phrase, no line in this performance lacks shape, at whatever tempo, and because of this shape he and the musicians get away – to my ears – with all manner of sloppiness. The orchestra’s sound does not well from the bass as in many classic Brahms performances; the moment-to-moment tension perhaps precludes that.

The first tempo for the finale’s main theme is absurdly fast, so much so that you wonder how he can ever gain extra animato when Brahms asks for it: but the tempo accelerates before the marking and by the time it comes the musicians are swept away on a rushing torrent (with the exception of the horns, who are less than certain!). The return of the theme is more sturdy, but there is little sense of two basic tempi which are usually the bedrock of this movement, adhered to more (by Wand) or less (by Furtwängler) strictly. The excitement level is already so high that some may weary at the unceasingly frenetic feel. Even the restatement of the chorale theme in the coda rejects nobility for brassy boldness. Krauss finds in the piece an impetuosity and even violence that is one unignorable side of Brahms’s musical personality, and this disc is well worth hearing if only to appreciate that.

Peter Quantrill

 


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