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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C Op. 68 (1876) [41:33]
Symphony No.2 in D Op. 73 (1877) [41:18]
Symphony No.3 in F Op. 90 (1883) [38:18]
Symphony No.4 in E Op. 98 (1885) [41:25]
Variations on a Theme of Haydn Op. 56a (1873) [18:12]
Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880) [11:19]
Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1881) [12:40]
Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (1869) [14:10] *
Lucretia West (contralto) *
Staatskapelle Dresden (Symphony No.1)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Haydn Variations, Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Alto Rhapsody)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No.2)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No.3)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No.4)
Hans Knappertsbusch
rec.1950-57. ADD
ANDROMEDA ANDRCD 5066 [3 CDs: 71:36 + 78:30 + 68:02]
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You’ll 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Maybe 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.
So 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, average restoration.
Jonathan Woolf  



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