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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [35’03"]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [36’46"]
Wiener Symphoniker/Fritz Busch
Recorded: Vienna, 1950
URANIA RM 11.907 [71’54"]

It seems to me that there are two prime justifications for an ‘historic’ issue. Either such recordings illuminate the music in some way or they add to our appreciation of the artist(s) involved. I’m not sure that this release fulfills either of these criteria.

Here we have performances of two pillars of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire by Fritz Busch (1890-1951) recorded in the year before his untimely death. As is their wont, Urania provide no information whatsoever as to the source of the recordings (or about anything else, come to that.) The performances are described as "Public Domain Recordings". Does this mean they are recordings made for broadcast by a radio station? I can detect no sounds of an audience.

The Beethoven begins quite promisingly with a lightness of touch and sense of forward momentum in the introduction to the first movement. The main body of the allegro is quite lithe and dances along nicely. While the VSO may lack the tonal allure of more prestigious bands (though how much is such an impression due to the recorded sound?) they play with enthusiasm.

Sadly, the second movement is a major disappointment. Busch elects a ponderously slow tempo that means that the music unfolds as a weary trudge. It’s worth noting that he takes 9’42" for this movement. Two other historic recordings that I selected at random from my own collection (by Toscanini and Weingartner) both come in at around 8’00" without sounding in the least bit rushed. Some may find a degree of gravitas in Busch’s reading but for me it’s too slow and rather portentous.

The scherzo is much better, bowling along with energy. The finale is driven very strongly, which is fine although there are places where the violins have audible difficulties with semiquavers at this tempo. All in all I’d categorize this performance as decent but not remarkable and for me the second movement pretty much rules it out of court.

The first movement of the Brahms is uncommonly fleet. There’s certainly no autumnal lingering here. Busch contributed a bracing reading of the same composer’s Second Symphony in EMI’s ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ series and I rather liked that. I’m much less convinced here. The pace is just too swift for my taste. It seems that Busch has not considered fully the tempo marking, which is Allegro non troppo (my emphasis.) The music simply doesn’t have sufficient time to breath and expand and by the time I’d listened right through I felt that the reading was just plain perfunctory. The speed leads to breathless phrasing from the orchestra – at times they sound as if they’re just hanging on by their fingertips. After this I got down Rudolf Kempe’s live 1976 performance (on BBC Legends). One has only to listen for a few minutes to appreciate what Busch has missed. Kempe, masterly as ever in Brahms, finds so much more light and shade, so much more expressive give and take by adopting a more easeful, but not sluggish speed. A comparison of timings is instructive. Busch dispatches the movement in 10’46"; Kempe takes 12’06".

Busch’s speed for the second movement is much more conventional. Now the music sounds more at ease and so do the players. Busch himself seems to control the music much better in terms both of pace and shading.

It’s back to brisk tempi in the third movement, which Busch plays at a very similar speed to that adopted by Victor de Sabata in his 1939 Berlin Philharmonic recording (Andante) that I reviewed recently. The pace adopted by both conductors is challenging and exhilarating, although it must be said that the VSO are not quite as nimble in negotiating the notes as are the Berliners.

I find the concluding passacaglia something of a curate’s egg. Some passages sound rushed while others (such as the sparsely accompanied flute variant) come off well. Overall, I have to say that I’ve heard tauter, more distinctive readings of this movement.

In fact my reaction to the performance of the whole symphony is pretty much the same as I felt about the Beethoven. I have a major reservation over one movement and the remainder is satisfactory without having any special distinction. There are other, better historic versions of both works on the market (one thinks of Weingartner in the Beethoven and Mengelberg in the Brahms, both on Naxos, which are much more characterful.) The sound quality is no better than adequate and, as mentioned before, documentation is non-existent. Unless you’re a Busch completist I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

John Quinn


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