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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 3 in F major, op. 90, Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Edouard Lindenberg
Recorded in 1969, location not given
WARNER APEX 0927 49880 2 [73:21]

I have recently commented on this conductor’s coupling of Beethoven 5 and 7, and gave there a short outline of his career, which appears to have been of a higher profile than our scant knowledge of him in England suggests. I enjoyed the Beethoven disc for its spontaneity and sense of enjoyment.

In Brahms it seems that Lindenberg is best suited to the middle movements. That of no. 3 gets a refreshingly swift reading; no sense of haste but warmly flowing and without the lugubriousness which sometimes sets in as Brahms has his tiny melodic phrase of two repeated notes echoed around the orchestra in a proto-Webern manner. Though Boult was noted for not letting slow movements drag, Lindenberg’s 7’ 56" is even more forward-moving than the English conductor’s 8’ 32".

However, it seems that swift slow movements were not a matter of principle with Lindenberg since that of no. 4 takes 11’ 33" compared with Boult’s 9’ 56" (and close to Mengelberg’s 11’ 40"). It is a grave reading, beautifully phrased and sufficiently fluid to avoid heaviness.

In the third movement of no. 3 Lindenberg captures ideally the gentle grace of Brahms’s intermezzo, while the fierce attack of the corresponding movement in no. 4 quite took me by surprise. The more delicate episodes are also well expressed so this is another outstanding reading.

The spontaneity of the performance means that a number of points of balance, phrasing and articulation which are very slightly smudged in the exposition to the first movement of no. 3 (no repeat) come right in the recapitulation. Was there not enough rehearsal time to record the exposition again? At the outset I was not sure whether this was a version to consider seriously or not, but by the end of the movement my feelings were more positive. The finale is on the slow side and the opening has not the hushed expectancy of some other recordings. Thereafter it is strongly delivered with a particularly effective handling of the final winding-down.

The first movement of no. 4 is not quite concentrated in tempo, moving forward a little in the more energetic sections. I don’t want to over-emphasize this, but if it emerges more single-mindedly under Boult, this is the reason. Similarly the finale is done well but without Boult’s sense of seamless line. The final "Più allegro", for instance, sounds like a sudden spurt of tempo whereas with Boult it seems to emerge from what has gone before.

The recordings are good enough but without the dynamic range or the body of the best late-sixties recordings.

What does this all amount to? If you want to get these two symphonies without paying too much you will do no harm to either yourself or Brahms by acquiring this disc; indeed, you could pay a lot more and be much worse off. I suppose the existence of the Klemperer cycle prevented these recordings from making much impact in their day, yet that great conductor’s magisterial authority brings some strange eccentricities in its train in no. 4 and I don’t think I could prefer it to this. In another famous sixties cycle Bruno Walter, fine in no. 3, hung fire in no. 4 and the recording was poor. Boult’s 1970s recordings are on a strange label which can only be bought in HMV shops (and his Brahms should really be judged on his 1950s cycle, which remains unavailable). Since his performances of these two symphonies are coupled together (with the repeat in no. 3 making a very generous 76’ 27"), if you have access to them this is probably the best bargain solution.

If on the other hand you like to have multiple versions of the principal masterpieces you will find points of interest here, especially if all your recordings of no. 3 make heavy weather of the slow movement. If you want to investigate the art of a possibly underrated conductor, perhaps the Beethoven record is the best place to start, but his performances leave a warm feeling after them, whatever the defects, and I hope there are more to come (this label has also brought out a coupling of the other two Brahms symphonies).

Christopher Howell

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