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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op. 98 (1884) [39:48]
Variations on a theme by Haydn Op.56a (1873) [19:46]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Berlin, 12 December 1943 [claimed date 21 June 1942 for the Symphony]
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 01100 [59:42]


 


Melodiya continues its inexorable way through the Furtwängler wartime broadcast series. This one is an all-Brahms disc. The Fourth Symphony may be better known from the performances in Berlin in 1948 and 1949; maybe the 1950 Vienna Philharmonic performance as well, but for an example of the most fluid exegesis imaginable this wartime inscription can hardly be bettered.

The sense of ebb and flow, of sheer elasticity, is immediate and startling for those unfamiliar with the conductor’s approach to this symphony. The plentiful accelerandi bind the symphonic argument in the most freely romantic of jackets; ritardandi equally are used for devastatingly emotive purposes, with flexibility of pulse and expression raised to a remarkable degree. Naturally one can think of contemporaries almost at random – Toscanini, Weingartner and Boult to take just three examples – for whom this is anathema. Nevertheless the particular circumstances of the performance and the supremely composed nature of the conception bring rewards of the highest kind. The slow movement opens very slowly but subsequent tempo modifications and fluctuations give it a sense of constant evolutionary drama. No less does the fervent percussion section add its say. The measured dance of the third movement balances joyous affirmation with structural imperatives; and the finale proves dramatic and intense with that Furtwänglerian sense of spontaneous abandon that seems to drive everything before him.

There is a recording caveat. One is aware, though it only becomes troublesome from the scherzo onwards, of tape flicker, rather like a distant but audible pneumatic drill.

The Haydn variations were recorded in December 1943. The performance is modest, proportioned, and highly sympathetic rather in the way Knappertsbusch’s was. In variation four Furtwängler brings a pleasing gravity to the bass line and contrasts it with a correspondingly vivacious and aerial Vivace. He makes the most of internal contrasts and delivers a cogent and rewarding performance.

One detail remains outstanding. Melodiya claims this to be a performance given on 21 June 1942. I’m not aware of any such recording. It’s actually the one given on 12 December 1943 [Olsen 94].

Jonathan Woolf

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