For many years I have
greatly admired the conducting of Colin
Davis, both live and on records. A mental
retrospect of his work brings to mind
his Berlioz cycle, his Haydn symphonies,
his Sibelius, his Mozart operas, his
Britten, his Verdi and Puccini. It is
a long list. So it was with great anticipation
that I started listening to this five-disc
box including most of Brahms’s orchestral
music. Actually the only compositions
missing are the two early serenades
and his very last orchestral offering,
the Double Concerto. This should, in
other words, be an ideal starter for
someone who has just found his/her way
to Brahms and wants to investigate further.
Aimez-vous Brahms? wrote Françoise
Sagan almost half a century ago, and
I am sorry to say that
these versions left me more or less
unmoved. And the reasons are not easy
to analyze. My first reaction was: "It’s
my fault. I’m not in the right mood.
This is music that I normally get involved
in after just a few bars." So I
turned it off, put on some unknown guitar
music - and was enthralled. I went back
to the box a couple of days later when
I felt in Brahmsian mood, but again
had the feeling of a certain distance
to the music. And so it proved to be
whenever I returned to Davis’s Brahms
during a period of several weeks. I
started to dip into old favourite recordings,
some of them from a very distant past,
and most of them had in abundance what
Sir Colin lacked: presence. It has nothing
to do with bad music making. My God!
We have here one of the great symphony
orchestras of the world, steeped in
the central Austro-German tradition.
We have one of the foremost and most
versatile conductors of practically
the whole post-war era. Listening critically
we have no reason to question tempos,
Davis obeys Brahms’s dynamics, the playing
is first-class, the sound is good.
I also get the feeling
that Davis doesn’t differentiate the
characters of the works. The First Symphony,
nicknamed by some commentators "Beethoven’s
Tenth", should be, well, Titanic.
The second, his "Pastoral Symphony",
should smile. The third, his "Eroica",
should be heroic. The fourth, his most
personal creation, should be dark, brooding.
And of course they are – all of this
is in the written music and played by
professionals they become Titanic etc,
but in this case only on the surface.
Giulini in his LAPO recording comes
closer to the heart of the First Symphony.
Karajan, in his first Brahms cycle from
the early 1960s, smiles more beguilingly
in the Second (however unlikely that
sounds) and is more overtly heroic in
the third. The recently deceased Carlos
Kleiber catches all the dark colours
in his legendary recording of the Fourth,
just reissued as a memorial disc. All
of these are on DG. When delving even
deeper into my LP collection I found
an early 1960s recording of the Fourth
with this same Munich orchestra conducted
by octogenarian Carl Schuricht for the
defunct Concert Hall label. It is severely
worn and in mono only but it has all
the required darkness and it is so finely
structured, so architectonically surefooted.
If ever it appears again, and Carl Schuricht
has obviously been rediscovered lately,
I recommend it wholeheartedly. Well,
it seems I am reviewing the wrong discs.
Returning to Sir Colin I can say that
without the knowledge of other recordings
this compilation can probably be a valid
and inexpensive introduction to Brahms’s
fascinating symphonic world. There may
not be any deep revelations but on the
other hand neither is there any of the
quirkiness you can find in some other,
The concertos are more
or less in the same league – they are
efficient but not very enlightening.
The pianist, Gerhard Oppitz, a pupil
of Wilhelm Kempff, is widely regarded
as one of the foremost German pianists
of his generation. However on this evidence
he doesn’t seem to be on a par with
some of his contemporaries. He has a
formidable technique which is required
in these works. With him the First Concerto
is powerful and exuberant, which it
should be, but it is also a little short
on poetry an indispensable quality in
the B-flat concerto. Stephen Kovacevich
recorded both these concertos in the
late 1970s for Philips, actually with
Colin Davis and the LSO, and these recordings
are certainly superior to Oppitz’s.
The Violin Concerto
definitely belongs to the greats, challenged
only by Beethoven’s – in the same key.
It requires a formidable soloist. I
was lucky enough to hear Nathan Milstein,
at the age of 79, giving a riveting
performance of this concerto at the
Barbican, and this is still the benchmark
for me. His early LP recording, with
Steinberg on Columbia, is a good try.
He re-recorded it for DG in the 1970s,
but that live performance still lingers
in my memory as the closest approach
to perfection. I hadn’t heard Kyoko
Takezawa before but a visit to her official
website told me that she is much in
demand and she has recorded great parts
of the standard repertoire for the BMG
label with conductors like Slatkin and
Tilson Thomas. Among her other recordings
is the Elgar concerto with Colin Davis.
She is no mean contender, and makes
a good stab at this, the least soloistic
of concertos. However as recorded here
her tone is decidedly on the thin side
and lacks the necessary glow. It could
be her placing vis-a-vis the microphones.
Technically her playing is flawless.
Maybe I am too affected
by those old ’uns, but in the main Colin
Davis and his very capable soloists
give a very professional and adequate
rendering of these works but not ones
that I would return to very often.
Sir Colin also includes
the two overtures and the so-called
Haydn Variations. No complaints here.
He catches the festive feeling in the
Academic Festival Overture. The Tragic
Overture combines well with the Fourth
Symphony, for which it can be regarded
as a preliminary study. The much earlier
Variations belong to the best versions
I can recall hearing.
In order to squeeze
all this music onto five well-filled
discs, a couple of works have been split
between discs: Symphony No. 2 and the
Violin Concerto. It can be a bit annoying
when you want to listen to the complete
works but on the other hand you do save
a few pounds.
If you want inexpensive
and very good versions of just the four
symphonies I would recommend the aforementioned
early Karajan set (DG) or Kurt Sanderling’s
Dresden recordings from the early 1970s
(BMG). Hopefully they are still available.
But if, on the other hand, you want
a very economical and comprehensive
Brahms box, this is a good alternative.
I may have sounded less than enthusiastic,
but in spite of some reservations there
is much here to admire.