have encountered this collection of Kna’s Brahms over the
years on various labels, though maybe not consolidated into
a two-disc set as here in this budget-priced offering. It’s
a necessarily disparate collection deriving from commercial
recordings – the Viennese Deccas of 1957 – and from live
broadcasts with as select a group of German orchestras as
you could find. Each German orchestra takes a symphony each.
Critically speaking reviewing
Knappertsbusch’s Brahms is the equivalent of kicking a blind
man or a dog. He’s routinely disembowelled for his own very
self-evident and indeed self-promoted faults of laziness,
imprecision, grandiloquence, and marmoreal exaggeration.
Still, fair’s fair, I love it. Not all of it – you’d have
to be unhinged to an outrageous degree to like it all – but
quite a bit of it. At least some of the time anyway.
Vienna sessions went well in the main. The Decca team did
what they could but the string sound now sounds very papery;
maybe some retrieval work could impart some warmth but I
suspect the bulk of the problems would remain; they do in
Decca’s own work (see below). The Haydn Variations receive
an attractive reading. The tempos are relaxed, as one would
expect, but there’s a fine sense of clarity and an unwilful
projection that are most attractive. I wouldn’t say that
this is a reading in the Monteux class – to take one conductor
who had a direct musical and personal acquaintance with the
composer – but it still seems to me a sane, affectionate
and enjoyable reading. Lucretia West proves an estimable
soloist in the Alto Rhapsody; there’s something highly attractive
about her singing that brings out the best in the accompanying
conductor. It’s certainly much better than the Academic Festival
Overture where the papery strings for some reason seem to
matter more and where Kna does sound stodgy. The Tragic Overture
goes better but his contemporary and Nikisch disciple Boult
did this kind of thing with far greater backbone.
Symphonies are, it’s true, a mixed bunch. The First is heavy,
deliberate, brazen and rather technically compromised. But
that gruff seriousness that Kna always brought to bear in
Brahms is certainly here. The corollary is that there isn’t
the spirit of lyric uplift, those moments in Brahms 1 when
the heart takes wing. He was taped in a splendid recording
with the Munich orchestra of the Second in 1959. This time
it’s 1956 in Ascona. String tone is far warmer, or more warmly
caught, than in Vienna the following year though there one
or two unsettling orchestral balances – instruments covering
those with melody lines and so on. This could be carelessness
or could be the Ascona set up – or a subtle combination of
the two. Still, the slow movement is very well sustained
and there’s power and conviction here if not always finesse.
His urgent drama is best caught here, in this symphony, with
his highly effective scherzo and masculine finale. The audience
doesn’t sound convinced though – applause is tepid.
Third Symphony is doled out to the Berlin Philharmonic. The
problem here is the marmoreal start, which takes some getting
over. The rugged, and indeed ragged, moments that follow
attest to a certain corporate dismay amid the Berlin ranks.
They sound at best fitfully convinced by Kna’s metrical comings
and goings – and there are quite a few – and not at all by
his general conception. The result is a kind of stalemate.
The Fourth happens to be my favourite, maybe for all the
wrong reasons. Powerful, fluid, dramatic, gruff, wilful -
yes to all these. But also opening out like lava flow in
the second movement and running rapid accelerandi to prefigure
the finale’s crises. This is a very human Fourth, at times
overwhelmingly, dangerously so. Not a connoisseur’s Fourth
or maybe for most collectors or even auditors. But something
for once in a dramatic while – gaunt tragedy, unvarnished.
you will have seen Melodram 4.0039, which has a number of
these performances – though it includes the Second Piano
Concerto with Curzon and the Double Concerto and does without
the First Symphony. The Vienna tracks are on Decca 470 254-2
coupled with the Siegfried Idyll. The Berlin Third
Symphony was on IDI 6362 coupled with Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.
this is all recycled material. It will hardly oust better
played and better recorded cycles. But Knappertsbusch adherents,
craggy and disruptive as a rule, will want it all. No notes,
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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