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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphonies: 1 in C minor op.68; 2 in D op.73; 3 in F op.90; 4 in E minor op.98
Academic Festival Overture op.80; Tragic Overture op.81; Variations on a Theme of Haydn op.56a
Piano Concertos(1): 1 in D minor op.15; 2 in B flat op.83
Violin Concerto in D op.77(2)
Gerhard Oppitz (1), Kyoko Takezawa (2)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
First pub. 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1998, no other information given
BMG CLASSICS/RCA RED SEAL 82876 60388 2 [5 CDs: 71:22 + 75:10 + 66:08 + 75:22 + 68:38]

 

Sir Colin Davisís progress from a firebrand challenger of establishment orthodoxy to the white-haired sage of today has been mapped out by a number of clearly-defined stages, each neatly calculated so as to be long enough to make its mark yet not too long to outstay its welcome. Sadlerís Wells, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Covent Garden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, together with important guest or honorary positions in Boston, Dresden and New York (the latter undocumented on CD as yet); each has seen its particular triumphs with the odd disappointment thrown in. On the conducting stage of the late 20th Century he may be compared to Bernstein or Horenstein, not because his interpretations in any ways resemble theirs (which are totally different from one another anyway) but because he is a loner, not a follower of anyone in particular, nor a spawner of imitations in his turn, and because his pursuit of the truth of the composers he loves sometimes comes up against the sheer force of his own personality. This has not prevented him from interpreting a wide range of composers with signal success, yet never in almost fifty years before the public eye has it been suggested that Brahms is one of the composers into whom he possesses particular insights. The present symphonic cycle Ė so far without successor and likely to remain so since the LSOís own label has preferred to play safe with Haitinkís well-tried interpretations Ė was received pretty tepidly in the early 1990s and quietly disappeared.

Contrary to my own expectations and to received wisdom, I have to say I found it (Iíll come to the concertos later) a superbly consistent cycle without a weak moment and more satisfactory, to my ears, than this conductorís interpretations of some of the music for which he is said to show a special empathy.

The opening of no.1 should be enough to reassure anyone. The tempo is sufficiently forward-moving to avoid any sense of plod and the sound itself is a marvel, rich and transparent at the same time. The Davis sound in Brahms is based firstly on a forward wind-balance, with each instrument encouraged to exploit its special tonal characteristics (Berlioz training) and then set them within a general blend which is rich but not just generically homogenous. Then the string articulation is very clear with a sonorous but sharply etched bass-line (Mozart training) which means that Brahmsís frequent moments of canonic and pseudo canonic imitation between upper and lower strings are always perfectly clear. Unexpected relief is frequently given to inner lines, throwing familiar passages into new focus without actually obscuring the contours we know so well. It is as though Davis has taken the symphonies to pieces and reassembled them without reference to other versions; in a general way his reconstructions do not run counter to what we normally hear, but in countless small details we are aware of an inquiring mind at work. There are also, I suppose I should point out, occasional bursts of brass to remind us that the conductor has an impetuous temperament to curb.

The Allegro of no.1 is as tautly dramatic and unhurried as one might expect of a conductor who made an early success with Don Giovanni. In the slow movement he prefers, as is the custom today, a slower tempo than those of Klemperer or Boult (Davis: 9í 55", Klemperer: 9í 25", Boult: 8í 24") yet his sense of ongoing rhythm avoids heaviness. Much the same may be said of the gravely carolled intermezzo (Davis: 5í 09", Klemperer: 4í 42", Boult: 4í 48"). If in these movements the timings merely confirmed the impressions I got from listening, in the finale Davis, for all his grand majesty, is also bitingly dramatic and I frankly didnít expect to find his timing so much longer than the other two (Davis: 17:28, Klemperer: 16:00, Boult 16:01). In the first movement, by the way, Klemperer klempers (to use Paul Shoemakerís delightful term) unmercifully (Davis: 13:01, Klemperer: 14:06; Boultís 15:36 finds space for the repeat omitted by the others). All in all, this powerful, vital and cogent interpretation is as good as I have heard.

If no.1 is perhaps the glory of the cycle, in part this is because Brahms himself became less dense and more transparent, with the result that Davisís particular insights add less to what we already knew. Still, it is all very fine, continuing the pattern of bitingly dramatic first movements (no.3, given with the repeat, is a notably passionate affair), long-drawn but never mushy slow movements, gravely paced intermezzos (that of no.2 slips in and out of its various tempi with much mastery) plus a tensely vital version of the real scherzo in no.4, and broad finales. This latter means that no.2 does not generate the same overall cumulative sweep you find in Boult, but this was very much the triumph of Boultís Indian summer cycle (available on 3 CDs on a label which can be bought only in HMV shops); in no.1 he failed to carry the orchestra with him and is (as transferred) muzzily recorded. Boultís 3 and 4 have much to commend them though the latter does not efface my memories of a live performance I heard him give. Klempererís particular qualities are to be heard in no.3 which flows with an unforced inevitability from start to finish, but again no.1 is a liability and he does some odd things with the other two here and there. It would be nice to think that in the fullness of years Davis will return to Brahms but even as it is, to have done a better cycle overall than Klemperer is no mean achievement.

Obviously, if you want a different kind of performance, whether fast and passionate or freely romantic, there is a wide range of alternatives; there are some notable historical cycles (Weingartner, Toscanini Ö) and it is curious that a number of conductors produced fine versions of one or two of the symphonies (Munch, Reiner, Scherchen Ö) but were not asked to record the others.

Davisís Academic Festival hangs fire here and there but this hardly affects the overall package. His Haydn Variations are very well characterised, confirming his liking for a broad finale in Brahms, while in the Tragic Overture he joins Ančerl in showing that a 15-minute traversal heightens the stark drama Ė by comparison Klemperer (12:32), Boult (13:52) and Kempe (12:58) sound one-sided and brusque.

But what of the concertos (and what, by the way, is the point of issuing all four symphonies but only three out of the four concertos)?

In some ways Gerhard Oppitz might seem the ideal partner for the enterprise since he, too, favours broad, majestic tempi, an absence of self-conscious point-making and a rich, rounded sonority. It is this latter which brings my first reservation, though, since however basically well-suited to the music this sonority is, he makes no attempt to vary it throughout the length of the two concertos. The borderline between what is impressively single-minded and what is oppressively monochrome is a fine one and by the end I felt that Oppitz had veered to far in the latter direction. All the same, I enjoyed no.1 considerably, not least for the well-chosen tempo for the first movement which allows spaciousness without ever steering into the doldrums (Davisís contribution is very positive in this sense). The first movement of no.2 on the other hand is too close to an Andante for me and it needs all Davisís blazing support to keep it going. But my biggest qualm regards the last movement where the doggedly even stressing takes the joy out of the music. Still, if you accept an approach which puts broad majesty before everything else, these performances are fine up to a point, even masterly.

Kyoko Takezawa is a quite different type of artist, with a dangerous tendency to drift into gentle rhapsody at the expense of structure Ė the first movement cadenza shows how disruptive she can be when nobody is able to do anything about it. For the rest, Davis very tactfully keeps her on course and the result, if not the finest version in the catalogue, is warm-hearted and lyrical, with broad but not sluggish tempi.

So how about these 5 CDs as a way of getting your basic Brahms? Well, if the 3CDs containing the symphonies and the other three orchestral works had come out on their own I should be asking the Editor to name it a Record of the Month, for this is an extremely satisfying and consistent cycle, superior as a whole to the Klemperer set I reviewed not long ago. The concertos do not add as much as they might and they are not even complete. One thing you could do would be to get the splendid Heifetz/Piatigorsky/Wallenstein Double Concerto as a supplement, and as I pointed out in my review, you will be getting a performance of the Violin Concerto by Heifetz and Reiner which is nothing if not a contrast to the present one, brisk and passionately forward-moving to a fault. Better still, though, to get a performance like the incomparable Szeryng/Monteux which manages to inhabit the best of both worlds. But then you would need to get someone like Gilels in the piano concertos, and I wonder if you would ever listen to Oppitz again if you did that? So now itís over to you.

Christopher Howell



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