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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no 1 in C minor op.68 [46:59]
Rhapsodie op.53 for contralto, male-voice chorus and orchestra [14:42]*
Lucia Valentini-Terrani (contralto)*
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della RAI*/Peter Maag
Recorded live in Turin, 9th April 1976 and Milan, 27th April 1979*
ARTS ARCHIVES 43058-2 [60:35]

Arts Archives are clearly dedicated to preserving the art of Peter Maag, an under-recorded conductor after his brilliant start on Decca. Having succeeded in making a number of recordings of him in his last years, notably a Beethoven cycle but also Mozart, Mendelssohn and Gluck, they are now making a selective trawl of the RAI archives, which contain a vast array of his performances over a period of some thirty years. Since various off-the-air bootleg issues have given the idea that the RAI is a pretty dicey source of historical material, I should emphasise that these are official releases bearing the RAI-Trade emblem. They use the original master tapes which are revealed, apart from a miscalculation in the Rhapsody which I shall come to later, to be extremely fine with excellent stereo definition and a rich, warm sound. Furthermore, if the name of the RAI orchestras spells horror in some quarters, in the seventies the Turin orchestra in particular was at some sort of peak. This was evident from the recent Mendelssohn issue and the Cluytens recordings of Honegger and Debussy on this same label; altogether richer in timbre than the band which Maag’s master Furtwängler had conducted from this same rostrum more than twenty years earlier, a recording some readers may know. They are not immaculate, but immaculacy was not one of Maag’s primary concerns (or Brahms’s?) and they respond warmly to the phrasing and shading he calls for. No doubt the BPO or the VPO would have been better still, but we need not feel that Maag’s interpretation is reaching us in an imperfect form.

The notes suggest that Maag’s neglect was caused by his sudden flight to a Tibetan monastery for nearly two years and the consequent cancellation of a many important engagements. Maag himself confirmed this view in an interview - which can be found on the Internet. I beg to suggest, however, that there were other reasons too. As time went on Maag’s interpretations had become increasingly unpredictable and personalized. I remember attending a performance of Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony in Milan in about 1978 or 1979 where the music came to a complete standstill on several occasions, very different from his famous Decca recording of the same work. At the time I found it perplexing though I admired the wholehearted response he got from the orchestra.

And so it is with the First Symphony here. The first movement begins with a well characterized introduction and the Allegro itself gets under way with much tragic impetus. Then the tempo slackens ... and slackens ... and slackens until it practically comes to a standstill, then picks up, of course, then during the development comes to another halt, and so on. Similar things happen in the finale, and at certain moments in the Andante sostenuto, already expounded at a luxuriantly expansive pace, the music drifts into almost motionless contemplation. Maag goes further in this direction, in fact, than his master Furtwängler who in Turin made creative use of the orchestra’s thin sonority to produce a lean, classical reading which might surprise his admirers as well as his detractors. I would say that only Celibidache, in the post-Furtwängler era, approached Brahms with comparable romantic license.

For the truth is that, for much of Maag’s career, he was increasingly adopting an interpretative stance that was out of fashion. Furtwängler is venerated today but in the fifties and sixties it was still Toscanini who held sway. Most of Furtwängler’s records were out of the catalogue (only his Tristan kept a permanent place) and were often rudely dismissed by critics when an attempt was made to revive them. The craze for searching out Furtwängler’s live performances began in the seventies and reached its peak in the eighties, when saturation - virtually everything that survived had been issued - led to a reassessment of other romantically-inclined conductors. The Berlin Philharmonic’s decision to appoint Karajan rather than Celibidache as Furtwängler’s successor was practically an official burial of the romantic approach to music-making.

So Maag’s big crime was that he was a romantic interpreter in a world that didn’t want romantic interpretations. His special brand of romanticism seems to have stemmed from his love of opera. Though undoubtedly dedicated to the symphonic repertoire I have the idea that his greatest love was opera, but even here he was a throwback to the age of the conductor and this was the age of the producer. In what should have been a glorious milestone in his career, his Paris "Ring", he fell foul of a producer (I forget who it was) who demanded faster tempi and, when he didn’t get them, imposed maximum timings as an ultimatum, forcing Maag’s withdrawal. As the press pointed out, Maag’s timings were not particularly long and shorter than Furtwängler’s. However, in later life Maag organized an annual opera class in Treviso, near Venice, where singers chosen through an audition-competition were patiently prepared for a production of an opera. Quite a number of subsequently famous singers went through this class.

The relevance of this is that Maag’s approach to musical architecture was more an operatic one, where each episode is given maximum characterization and structure is created by the placing of climaxes rather than by aligning everything to a uniform rhythmic trajectory. This differentiates him from the superficially similar Celibidache who appears to have had no interest in opera. And it differentiates him from practically every other conductor contemporary with him. Toscanini had decreed that things should be done otherwise and oddly enough even a conductor like Bruno Walter, who could be thoroughly romantic in other contexts, took a fairly classical view of Brahms.

Does this mean that Maag was wrong? Not necessarily. The conductors whose roots go back to Brahms’s own world and who left us recordings are fairly evenly divided between romantics (Mengelberg) and classics (Weingartner). Maag certainly reveals a side of Brahms often passed over, bringing him closer to the Lisztian-Wagnerian camp than to his usual severe self. At the very least his view deserves a hearing.

In Milan three years later the engineers unfortunately had the singer’s mikes turned up too high for her first entry, where she dwarfs the orchestra. I get the impression they very gently lower them, a bit at a time, so as not to create a jolt, with the result that the singer wanders from left to right of the soundstage until the balance settles into the right one and the recording then becomes a fine one. Fortunately Lucia Valentini-Terrani’s voice is a magnificent instrument which can withstand such close scrutiny, rich, even and luscious in a very Italianate way, but always in sympathy with the music. She loved the piece very much and made no studio recording of it. Maag’s conducting is again heartfelt, softer-edged than Klemperer’s would-be Mahlerian rendering with Ludwig and sufficiently forward-moving to avoid the longueurs of the funereal Ferrier/Krauss reading. With the proviso over the recording, this seems to me as rewarding a performance as any in the catalogue.

Might Maag yet become a cult figure? If he doesn’t it won’t be for lack of trying on the part of Arts Archives and I for one will certainly be interested to see what they come up with next.

Christopher Howell



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