Links to earlier reviews:
Here are riches indeed,
both for the devotee of Brahms and for
those interested in the art of conducting.
Andante have assembled eight very different
performances of the Brahms symphonies,
effectively two complete cycles, each
conducted by one of the leading figures
from the Golden Age of Conducting. Many
Andante issues stem from live performances
that were broadcast. Here, with one
exception, the sources are commercial
recordings (some collectors might count
that a missed opportunity) and as some
may have been available previously on
CD I have included the catalogue numbers
of the original releases, as given by
Andante, so that collectors can avoid
One performance, the
Mengelberg account of the Third, has
been issued on Naxos (8.110164).
There the date of the recording is given
as 10 May 1931, a year earlier than
cited by Andante. However, the matrix
numbers tally although the catalogue
numbers do not (Naxos used American
pressings) and an A/B listening confirms
that the two performances are the same.
Symphony No 1
Itís indicative of
a different approach to recording at
that time that this was Toscaniniís
first recording of a Brahms symphony
and was set down to be ready for issue
to mark his 75th birthday
in 1942. The performance of the first
movement is notable for an urgent drive
(though he eases up when the music demands).
The slow movement is spacious and the
third is airy and light. The finale
opens with a dark and portentous reading
of the introduction, leading to a taut
and direct reading of the main allegro.
Unlike Stokowski (of whom more in a
moment), Toscanini doesnít slow up for
the great chorale near the end. According
to the score, he is quite correct but,
shorn of any broadening the passage
sounds a little plain. By and large
the NBC Symphony play well though there
are occasional blemishes (some rhythmic
ambiguity by the first clarinet at 3í02"
into the second movement produces a
momentary queasiness). The recording,
though perfectly acceptable and well
transferred sounds a bit dry and confined.
is more subjective and some may find
it a touch wilful. In the first movement
his introduction is more sculpted than
is Toscaniniís and more pregnant with
meaning (though not necessarily better).
By contrast, I find him leaner in the
main allegro. Some may find his pace
a trifle breathless but itís certainly
exciting. "Stoki" is slower
than Toscanini in the second movement
Ė just a bit too slow for my
taste. Like his Italian rival he adopts
a light approach to the third movement
but he phrases more sensuously and affectionately.
To some ears his phrasing in the trio
at letter D (from 1í43") may seem
a bit too smoothly legato (and he omits
the trio repeat, unlike Toscanini).
Iím also not convinced by the way he
applies the brakes at letter E. The
introduction to the finale is very moulded
and dramatic and is followed by a pretty
blazing account of the main allegro.
Come the final chorale and Stokowski
makes a colossal rallentando (14í43")
which I find way over the top. He makes
the two last wind and brass chords in
this passage sound just like an organ,
swelling with an unmarked crescendo;
itís a terrible liberty but one that
is forgivable in the heat of the moment.
The performance benefits from some fabulous
playing from the Philadelphians, which
is pretty well reported by the recording,
apart from rather muddy timpani tone.
is not conventional and is rather edge-of
Ėthe-seat but itís tremendously exciting
and provides a fascinating contrast
with Toscaniniís more "central"
account. Itís marvellous to have the
two performances side by side to compare
Symphony No 2
When Pierre Monteux
made this recording heíd occupied the
San Francisco podium since 1935 (and
was to stay there until 1952). The recorded
sound here, at least as reproduced on
my equipment, is a bit of a handicap.
The bass is muddy and the overall sound
tends to stridency and congestion at
climaxes. There are also moments of
untidiness in the performance when one
is aware that at that time, despite
Monteuxís efforts, the SFSO had not
yet become a virtuoso body. I donít
find that his phrasing in the first
movement has enough space Ė it sounds
rather literal Ė and this tends to emphasis
a certain lack of subtlety in the playing.
However, as the performance progresses
things improve. The opening of the slow
movement is nobly sung by the lower
strings and the movement as a whole
is pleasingly done. In the third movement
thereís a rustic charm to the San Francisco
winds that I rather like and later the
strings are suitably nimble. The start
of the finale is certainly not hushed
(how much is this the fault of the performers
and how much due to the recording, I
wonder?). In this movement, as elsewhere,
the violins exhibit some frailty when
playing in alt but while the
SFSO tone is not exactly lustrous thereís
an undeniable spirit to the finale and
overall this is a performance that I
enjoyed. I donít think this represents
Monteux at his best in Brahms (there
are, for instance, some fine live readings
with the Concertgebouw in a Tahra box
reviewed in 2002.) However, in general
this is an understanding and sensible
view of Brahms which some listeners
may prefer to the other account of this
symphony in this Andante anthology.
You may notice that
Iíve not compared the Monteux performance
with the accompanying one by Furtwängler.
This is quite deliberate since this
Furtwängler reading is, I think,
so extraordinary as to be sui generis.
It is the only live performance
in the collection and I donít think
one can ignore the context of the times
here for the symphony was given in Vienna
just as the Third Reich was in its death
throes. Furtwängler and the VPO
turn in a reading of astonishing, bleak
intensity quite unlike any other Iíve
heard. The performance is as different
from the Monteux one as chalk from cheese.
For a start, Furtwängler
has a much better orchestra at his disposal
(though the VPO are not infallible.)
Secondly, the recording is better by
some distance, with more air round the
sound and more detail reported (there
is some audience noise but itís not
too intrusive.) Then thereís the matter
of phrasing. The German seems to have
just that much more time and space,
especially in the lustrous opening theme.
Later on in the first movement, however
the reading becomes much more urgent,
even headstrong and now the conductor
needs (and, happily, has) a fine, responsive
orchestra to do justice to his highly
charged, dark and nervy conception of
the music. Itís a disturbing reading
and I found it quite enthralling. Just
one example will have to suffice. Just
after letter M in the score (11'58"
here) thereís a horn solo which eventually
carries the marking Ďun poco stringendoí.
Furtwängler, the VPO horn player
and the accompanying strings all make
this really tell. These few bars become
a very piercing passage, after which
the relaxation into Ďpoco tranquilloí
makes its effect much more strongly
some two minutes longer than does Monteux
over the second movement. Itís a deeply
felt, troubled performance and the VPO
match and facilitate the intensity of
their conductorís vision. I donít think
Iíve ever heard this movement sound
so heart rending. I think I prefer Monteuxís
way with the third movement, however,
for Furtwänglerís basic tempo is
steadier and I find that he misses completely
the twinkle that is so evidently in
the Frenchmanís eye here. Thatís probably
consistent with Furtwänglerís overall
approach to the symphony but here I
think heís off target. The finale is
driven hard and at times the performance
seems to be living on a knife-edge in
faster passages (such as the passage
between letters E and F). However, it
all comes together for an emphatic conclusion,
but one where we are far from the exuberance
that (quite appropriately) concluded
Monteuxís account. Surprisingly, thereís
no applause at the end.
Two very contrasting
accounts of this symphony are offered
here. One, I think, is for special occasions
only while the Monteux is a more conventional
reading and none the worse for that.
Symphony No 3
As Iíve mentioned already,
the Mengelberg performance offered here
is also available from Naxos. I reviewed
that version enthusiastically in April
2002 and I still find it very persuasive.
Rather than repeat myself here Iíll
just say that once again I found it
a "totally involving performance
from first to last", distinguished
by fine playing. To my ears, the transfer
offered by Andante is a bit fuller and
more rounded than that on Naxos. The
Naxos version also has more surface
hiss, though not to a troubling extent.
One thing worth pointing out, as James
Miller comments in his very interesting
essay for Andante, is that this Mengelberg
reading is the only one of the eight
included here in which the first movement
exposition repeat is observed.
I must be honest and
say that by the side of Mengelbergís
recording I found the Walter/VPO performance
a touch disappointing. Thereís more
untidy playing than I would have expected
from this team with both string intonation
and unanimity of chording not always
as they should be. One example is where
the violins reprise the opening theme
just after letter H (4í48"); the
intonation here is decidedly "democratic."
By the side of their
Dutch rivals the VPO wind players are
not too characterful, for example at
the start of the second movement, where
the principal clarinet in particular
sounds bland when heard against the
Concertgebouw player. One or two orchestral
frailties apart, the third movement
goes best and the finale is quite strongly
projected. Itís valuable to add this
performance to the other Bruno Walter
recordings from this period and some
collectors may enjoy it more than I
did but to be frank, if this was a single
disc issue I donít think Iíd be recommending
Symphony No 4
Here again we are confronted
by two sharply contrasting traversals.
The one by Felix Weingartner is, as
those familiar with his Beethoven might
expect, clear and forthright. He draws
fine, committed playing from the LSO
and the recording has transferred well.
It has a good degree of presence and
depth and though thereís some surface
hiss this is not a distraction. Characteristically
Weingartner controls the rhythms tightly
(but never to the extent that the music
sounds constrained). This is particularly
important in the first movement, of
which he gives a splendid performance.
Some may find his reading of the second
movement disconcertingly brisk (at 9í28"
itís the fleetest in my collection).
However, Weingartner, I think, appreciates
that Brahms didnít write symphonic adagios
and that the middle movements of his
symphonies tend to be more like intermezzi
with the weight of the argument falling
on the outer movements. Structurally,
this seems to be sound to me and this
account flows along nicely. He gives
a robust account of the third movement
with the rhythms once again splendidly
taut. The concluding passacaglia is
trenchant and darkly powerful. In terms
of drama Weingartner does not short
change the listener but his is a more
objective reading than that led by de
Sabata. All in all, I think itís a very
successful performance of the symphony.
Iíd not previously
heard Victor de Sabata in Brahms and
Iím glad to report that this most interesting
performance is also heard in a good,
warm transfer. He too benefits from
excellent orchestral playing, this time
from the pre-war BPO. By comparison
with Weingartner, de Sabataís approach
to the first movement is more moulded
and smoothly sculpted. Indeed, in essence,
his view of the whole work is much more
romantic and less classical in style.
His reading of the first movement is
strong and I found it most impressive
though I can imagine that others may
find it controversial. The second movement
is marked Ďandante moderatoí but in
truth thereís not much of the "moderato"
about de Sabataís way with the music.
At 12í58" his is easily the longest
that I know although Barbirolliís VPO
recording from the 1960s and Furtwänglerís
live 1948 account with the BPO (which
may still be available on EMI Références)
run it pretty close. Every detail is
lovingly nurtured. However, though the
pace is slow, de Sabataís ability to
sustain a long musical line means that
interest does not flag. Itís not a reading
Iíd necessarily want to hear every day
but as a twilight conception of the
music itís impressive in itís own terms.
After this, more than
usually the third movement offers a
great contrast to its predecessor. De
Sabata plays the movement very briskly
and for me he finds more of the spring
and brio in the music than does Weingartner.
As you might expect, his reading of
the finale is highly charged. Indeed,
itís as full of tension, drama and contrast
as any I know and the only recording
that I can recall that challenges Carlos
Kleiberís magnificent DG account from
1980 in this respect. The whole performance
is very exciting and one that I shall
want to return to in the future.
As I said at the outset
this set will be of great interest to
those who love Brahmsís music. It is
also a set that all who are interested
in the mysterious art of conducting
will want to hear. There is much to
admire and excite on these four CDs.
There is also much to ponder. Iíve found
it a fascinating experience to have
such differing performances to savour
and compare. As always with Andante
releases, the documentation is lavish
with notes in English, French and German
and some interesting and rare photographs.
Itís not a cheap set to acquire but
the rewards for doing so will be great.