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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini [42í30"]
Recorded: Carnegie Hall, New York City, 10 March 1941
Source: Victor M-875 (18467/18471 Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski [42í08"]
Recorded: Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 15 January 1936
Source: Victor M-301 (8971/8975)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux [36í24"]
Recorded: War Memorial Auditorium, San Francisco, 19 March 1945
Source: Victor DM-1065 (11-9241/9244)
Vienna Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler [39í12"]
Recorded: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 28 January 1945
Source: RRG recording taped for broadcast
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter [30í02"]
Recorded: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 18-19 May 1936
Source: HMV DB 2933/2936 Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg [35í17"]
Recorded: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 10 May 1932
Source: Columbia (France) LFX 305/308
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata [40í38"]
Recorded: Alte Jacobstrasse Studio, Berlin, 11, 13, 14, 17 March 1939
Source: Deutsche Grammophon 67490/67495 London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Felix Weingartner [37í18"] Recorded: EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 14 February 1938
Source: Columbia (UK) LX 705/709
ANDANTE RE-A-1030 [4CDs: 72í37"+77í27"+77í06"+76í34"]


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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 needless duplication.

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.

Stokowskiís traversal 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.

Stokowskiís reading 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 and contrast.

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 that I 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 than usual.

Furtwängler takes 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 it.

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.

John Quinn


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