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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [42:52]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [34:29]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 72 (1877) [43:59]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1873) [16:55]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880/1) [13:11]
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [39:24]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1881) [9:30]
Nänie, Op. 82 (1881/2) [13:10]
Rhapsody for Alto, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 53 [13:18]
CD 4
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868-9) [72:28]
Helen Watts (contralto) [CD3]; Agnes Giebel (soprano), Hermann Prey (baritone) [CD 4] ; Chœur de la Radio Suisse Romande; Chœur Pro Arte de Lausanne
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, February 1963 (Symphonies, Haydn Variations, Overtures), October 1965 (Rhapsody), June 1966 (Nänie, German Requiem).  ADD.
Booklet with notes but no texts.
Decca Eloquence 480 0448 [4 CDs: 77:32 + 74:26 + 75:44 + 72:28]
Experience Classicsonline


 
 

I’d forgotten that Ansermet had recorded so much Brahms, a composer with whom I don’t normally associate him.

I started by listening to the First Symphony and immediately realised why I hadn’t made the association; everything is in place and the playing of the OSR, though there are rough edges in places, notably from the brass, perfectly acceptable, yet I never really became emotionally involved in the performance.  Ansermet opens the first movement at a good, steady, pace but later pulls the tempo about in places in order to try to achieve an affective response from the listener, yet the whole effect seems curiously detached.  Even the ‘big tune’ in the finale comes off less well than in most performances, including the roughly contemporary version by Klemperer: EMI 5 67029 2, with Tragic Overture and Alto Rhapsody or a 3-CD set, 5 62742 2, with all the symphonies.  I should add, however, that Christopher Howell was less impressed with Klemperer’s Brahms than I am, though he agrees with me that the Third Symphony comes off very well – see review.

It isn’t so much that Ansermet’s tempo in the finale is too brisk for the ‘big’ tune to have its full effect – he’s actually half a minute slower overall than Klemperer, not known for his velocity – so I’m not quite sure why his account just fails to come off.

I’m not normally a great Klemperer fan but I’m happy to make an exception for his performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and for his Brahms, especially the third and fourth symphonies, where he is unequalled in my opinion in works which are much more difficult to bring off than is usually acknowledged.  The first should be the least problematic, but I was recently surprised to find myself liking Marin Alsop’s Naxos performance of this symphony (8.557428) less than I expected – see my October, 2008, Download Roundup.  But see Peter Lawson’s review for a hearty endorsement of this Alsop performance, with links to three other Musicweb reviews.

Puzzled at my failure to engage with Ansermet’s performance of the first, I checked with Trevor Harvey’s review of the LP back in 1964, and found that he had almost exactly the same reservations, though he praised the quality of the recording, which still sounds more than respectable, after all these years, though it’s a bit lacking in top.

The contest in the Third Symphony used to be between Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, with partisans fervently arguing the case for one or the other.  When Ansermet’s account first appeared, it seemed to many to be an ideal compromise between the two approaches so, with my clear preference for Klemperer here, or Karajan’s 1964 and late-1970s recording - distinguished runners-up - I wondered if the compromise would work for me.  On the whole it did: I found this much more acceptable than the first though, with slightly faster tempi than Klemperer, I missed the granite hardness of his performance.

Karajan (1964) polishes off the opening movement of the third in 9:44 and gets away with it, but Ansermet’s 11:51 and especially Klemperer’s 13:04 seem much more to the point.  Elsewhere Karajan’s tempi are much closer to both Ansermet’s and Klemperer’s

To the original coupling of the Second Symphony and the Tragic Overture, CD2 adds the ‘Haydn’, or St Anthony, Variations.  The symphony receives an effective, straight performance; you wouldn’t complain if you heard something of this calibre in a concert, though you might wonder if there might not be an extra dimension that had been missing, such as you might find in Beecham’s version of this work.  That wonderful show-stopping early-1960s EMI recording of the only Brahms symphony that Beecham regularly conducted seems not to be currently available but there is a good substitute, coupled with Beethoven’s Second Symphony, on BBC Legends BBCL40992.

At the time of the original issue of the Ansermet, I remember that I was perfectly content with Pierre Monteux’s account of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, reissued on the RCA Victrola label the previous year, so I can’t recall Ansermet’s version making much of an impact.  I’m sure it’s not just the golden glow of memory, but I recall the VPO strings under Monteux, even in mono and on the fairly rudimentary system that I had then, sounding richer than those of the OSR here.  Either the recording or their inherent quality – probably a combination of the two – makes them sound a little under-nourished throughout.

Nor does Ansermet’s account of the finale, albeit that it’s lively, bring the house down in the way that Beecham famously did, but few do.  Once more, it’s in the finale that I feel the greatest disappointment with Ansermet – again, he’s almost as slow as Klemperer here, without the benefits which Klemperer’s tempi bring.  How Beecham worked such magic with his fairly minimal rehearsal regime remains one of the great mysteries.  EMI really should bring his version back – but without the photograph of Beecham in that awful all-purpose suit that he seems to have worn for all his EMI publicity shots, which ‘graced’ the LP reissue, please.

Karajan (1964) seems livelier than either Ansermet or Klemperer in the finale of the second – in fact, he’s only seconds faster overall, but I prefer his approach.  This BPO/Karajan account of the second and third symphonies used to be excellent value on the budget Privilege label; with 73 minutes’ playing time, it’s still good value at mid-price (477 7159). DG’s ADD sound is as good as the Ansermet and better than the Klemperer.

As well as his recordings of the second, for RCA/Decca and Philips, Monteux made a famous recording of the St Anthony Variations, coupled with Elgar’s Enigma, the reissue of which on SPA121 remained my preferred version until the end of the LP era.  Ansermet’s version is not quite in that league but it is very acceptable and I didn’t notice the same thinness in the strings as in the Second Symphony.

On the third CD Eloquence add Nänie to the original coupling of the Fourth Symphony and the Academic Festival Overture.  The two purely orchestral works receive some of the best performances in the whole set.  In my experience, the fourth is the most difficult of the symphonies to bring off, with Klemperer’s version still heading the list for me, closely followed by James Loughran on Classics for Pleasure, now available in a box set – see below.  There used to be a very decent performance on the budget-price IMP label with the Hallé Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (PCD897); second-hand copies would be well worth looking out for, and someone ought to reissue this recording, preferably with a more generous coupling than the three Hungarian Dances which brought the time up to a mere 49 minutes.

Ansermet’s tempo for the second movement is slower than Klemperer’s and he is not much faster in the other movements; the use of slowish, steady tempi is what, for me, makes this performance the most acceptable of the whole set; it didn’t raise even one serious critical hackle.

In the Academic Festival Overture again, a fairly steady tempo pays dividends.  Neither Ansermet nor Klemperer is bacchanalian in this music, but their performances are certainly not joyless, either.  Marin Alsop’s Academic Festival Overture, the coupling for that First Symphony which I’ve mentioned, is actually slower overall than either.

The comparative rarity Nänie receives a persuasive performance and the excellence of Helen Watts’ singing in the Alto Rhapsody is sufficient to quell any small doubts which I had about the performance – a gloriously work, convincingly performed.  These two performances were reissued earlier by Eloquence, coupled with John Shirley-Quirk in the Four Serious Songs, Op.121, and Five Songs, Op.94; Jonathan Woolf thought that a recital characterised by integrity, musical wisdom and deep understanding (461 245 2 – see review, apparently no longer available).  Only the Schicksalslied, or Song of Destiny, of the vocal and choral works, is missing from both collections; if that is essential for you, you need Gerd Albrecht on Chandos CHAN10165, which Michael Cookson deemed an essential purchase for all lovers of classical music – see review.

The German Requiem, Alto Rhapsody and Nänie originally took up two premium-price SET LPs.  I have to admit that the Requiem is not my favourite Brahms work; though I wouldn’t go so far as George Bernard Shaw, who declared that the work could be borne only by a corpse, my copy of the 2-CD Philips Duo recording with Sawallisch (438 760-2, no longer available) rarely gets an outing, even for the orchestral works on the second CD, so I approached Ansermet’s version, with its reputation for dullness, even among lovers of the work, with caution.  After all, it’s three minutes longer than Klemperer (EMI), five minutes longer than Rattle (also EMI 3 65393 2 – see review), six minutes longer than Gardiner (Philips), Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi), Previn (LSO Live) or Bernius (Carus) and seven longer than Equilbey (Naïve V4956, chamber version – see review) or Cleobury (EMI 3 66948 2 – see review; not currently available).  But it’s also a minute shorter than Hickox (Chandos), four minutes shorter than the classic Kempe (EMI mono) and five shorter than Karajan (DG, CD and DVD).

In the event, I didn’t find the performance as dull as I’d expected; in fact, listening on a quiet Sunday morning I quite enjoyed it.  Agnes Giebel and Hermann Prey make fine soloists and they are well supported.  There are moments of real insight, such as the quiet reverence of the opening and the soaring passages of Denn alles Fleisch, but it didn’t convert me to like the work any better than before.  It’s at least as good as the Sawallisch, though it’s four minutes longer, but I need to move on from Sawallisch to a more inspirational account – I think it has to be Klemperer again.  I’ll also try out some other versions; keep an eye on future Download Roundups for the results.

If nothing else, the new set is excellent value, four CDs for less than £11 direct from Australia.  When the first symphony was released on LP in 1964, with no filler, that disc cost 37/6, which must equate to at least £40 in 2009 terms, making the equivalent value for the whole set at least £200.  The starting salary that year for a teacher with a good honours degree and a PGCE was just over £800 and a 2-bedroom house in Outer London cost around £4,000, so you can check the comparative values yourself.   Even the mid-1970s reissues on Decca’s budget World of label (SPA) of the orchestral works on four LPs at £1.50 each represent poor value by comparison, when that £1.50 is converted to present-day equivalents.

So no-one need feel short-changed in the monetary sense.  You wouldn’t feel short-changed metaphorically, either, by the quality of the performances; there’s nothing revelatory here, but there’s little that merits anything like serious criticism.  With recordings which still hold their own and an informative booklet of notes – but no texts – it deserves a recommendation.  The text of the German Requiem, from Luther’s Bible, is readily available online; those of Nänie and the Alto Rhapsody less readily.

The obvious competitor to Ansermet in this price category comes from James Loughran’s 4-CD set of the four symphonies, the Violin Concerto, ‘Haydn’ Variations and Overtures on Classics for Pleasure 5 75753 2, available for around £15, or even slightly less.  Ian Lace was right to ask ‘why pay more?’ – see review.  That CFP set would be my preference, especially in the light of the fact that Loughran’s version of the Fourth Symphony is the only one seriously to challenge Klemperer’s, in my opinion.  They’re not strictly comparable because the Ansermet set includes the German Requiem and Alto Rhapsody which you’re less likely to have in your collection than the Violin Concerto; ultimately, coupling may well prove the decisive factor.

There’s an odd typo in the Eloquence booklet: the opening section of the Requiem is listed as Selig sind, die da Lied tragen – blessed are those who sing, rather than those who suffer (Leid tragen).  In section VI, wie haben should be wir haben: no doubt this error was caused by thinking ahead to the archaic hie for hier later in the title.

More seriously, the assertion that Brahms was a reluctant symphonist is open to challenge; he was, in fact, keen to write his first symphony but delayed doing so until he was secure enough of his reputation as a composer of large-scale orchestral works not to be accused of plagiarism from Beethoven – and, even then, several critics referred to his first symphony as Beethoven’s Tenth.  You just can’t win, but he got his own back by saying that any donkey could see the similarity.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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