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Max Fiedler conducts Brahms and Schumann
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphony No. 1 in B flat major Op. 38
Siegfried Borries (violin)
Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Max Fiedler
Recorded live October 1936 (Brahms) and December 1936 (Schumann)
MUSIC AND ARTS CD 1092 [72.17]


In his judiciously written biographical essay Mark Kluge aptly notes that Fiedler’s association with Brahms is not quite as authoritative as some have believed it to be. It’s true that Fiedler played the piano solo at a rehearsal of the Second Concerto, at the subsequent concert of which Brahms was the soloist – but it has always been alleged that Brahms had heard Fiedler conduct the symphonies and had thus added his imprimatur to the younger man’s conducting. For this there is no evidence at all. Though his conducting career began quite late Fiedler soon began to travel internationally – New York, London – and was soon appointed Music Director in Boston, a position he held until he returned to Germany in 1908 and a post in Essen.

That his recordings were relatively few in number and that so many were of the music of Brahms has led, perhaps inevitably, to the view that if he wasn’t a Brahms acolyte then he was, at least, a specialist. He recorded the Second (1931) and the Fourth (1930) – though the dates given in brackets are subject to small controversy and may be out by a year – though not the odd numbered symphonies. The Second Piano Concerto, which he’d played on that famous occasion so many years before in 1883, he recorded with Elly Ney in 1939. The Academic Festival Overture had long before, in 1931, also been recorded. We can now add to Fiedler’s Brahmsian discography this live performance of the Violin Concerto with the eminent soloist-leader of the Berlin Orchestra, Siegfried Borries, then twenty-four. It’s a major discovery for Fiedler devotees. He opens the first movement slowly, grandly, with a touch of rhetorical brooding but soon accelerates into lyrical passages. Indeed his marshalling of the score throughout is marked by powerful concentration and strong romantic gestures. His soloist, Borries, was at the early stages of his distinguished career; indeed had only been leader of the orchestra for a couple of years. His vibrato can take on a youthful beat from time to time, sometimes tending toward the smeary; but his eloquently expressive response to the first movement shows itself in all sorts of telling little details and the most fundamental is his vibrato usage. He responds with ardour - but with rather too much differentiated tone - to the lyrico-expressive demands made on him by the score. The result is emotive but occasionally too fractured a response. Fiedler meanwhile offers flexibility and nuance in support – strong bass accents predominate – whilst Borries’ arsenal of portamenti are instructively quick but pervasive; he even makes a downward L-shaped portamento with a very fluttery quality to it indeed (I liked it but it certainly won’t be to all tastes).

The slow movement has a good oboe solo. Borries brings his relatively small tone to bear with acumen – he transmits colour through a coiled tone with a degree of warmth and affection. I much prefer him to a later Berlin Philharmonic leader now being touted as the Great German Violinist, Gerhard Taschner. Borries’ reading is affectionate without the aristocratic bearing that some others bring here. His finale is good – no gypsy abandon, perhaps, but equally no vulgarity. It possesses verve, which is important, if more than somewhat undisciplined orchestrally and the orchestra is not on especially scrupulous form throughout, it has to be said.

Coupled with the Brahms is Schumann’s First Symphony. This is a far more contentious reading and to those indifferent to this kind of performance it will sound maddeningly indulgent. As with the Brahms it again opens emphatically but it’s also full of rhythmic retardation and a pervasive, creeping sense of etiolation. When we reach the eruptive Allegro section of the first movement we have, so to speak, rhythmically lost our bearings. Tempo fluctuations abound in the best subjectivist tradition and a sense of almost wilful late nineteenth century drama. I have to say I didn’t detect much of a divining thread running through the movement; all I did find was sectionality even though one can’t but admit the sonorous and emotive texture of much of the conducting. The slow movement is again objectively terribly slow. This leads to cumulative successive peaks of tension and orchestral crisis – tension and release – but ones that carry with them inherent limitations and dangers. The expressive depth that is certainly present does become somewhat compromised by the lack of spine and drive. The final two movements go considerably – though by no means absolutely – better. I was glad to hear the performance but it’s one that I struggled with for some time.

Now for the problem and that’s the sound. Though it’s stated clearly that this is a release from the collection of the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv the sound quality is distinctly muddy. After a while one’s ear adjusts but there’s a deal of adjusting to be done. No transfer engineer or process is noted so I rather wonder how closely this resembles the original in the Berlin archive. I hope it won’t spoil enthusiasm for the disc which is most eloquent proof, in the case of the Brahms, of Fiedler’s standing in repertoire congenial to him and, as it were, him to it.

Jonathan Woolf


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