Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Variations of a theme by Haydn, St Antoni Chorale, op.56a (1874) [18:56]
Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.68 (1876) [47:33]
Symphony No.2 in D, op.73 (1877) [41:37]
Symphony No.3 in F, op.90 (1883) [38:13]
Academic Festival Overture, op.80 (1880) [11:02]
Tragic Overture, op.81 (1880) [14:39]
Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 (1884/1885) [41:45]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, no dates given
NIMBUS NI 6130 [3 CDs: 66:29 + 79:48 + 67:37]
It was a good piece of programming which placed the so–called Haydn Variations at the start of this collection of Brahms’s orchestral music, for it is a lovely and undemanding piece, no matter whether it was written by Brahms or one of his forgotten students. However the first two variations – poco piu animato and Piu vivace – are far too studied and surely too slow. The next two variations – Con moto and Andante con moto – are just about perfect with a good flowing tempo and a beautifully balanced sound. Variations 5 and 6 – both marked Vivace – fail to ignite and, again, are far too studied and too slow; no.5, in particular, doesn’t have the lightness of touch which it so obviously should have. Variation 8 – Grazioso – has a lovely lilt to it and no.9 – Presto non troppo – is just right, full of mystery. The Finale is stately and builds to a fine climax. I wonder why the variations weren’t banded separately instead of being lumped together in one 18 minute track?
The 1st Symphony gets off to a good start, with a powerful beat from the timpani and a very strong violin line, but tension is lost with a huge rallentando at the end of the opening tutti, thereafter the tempo resumes and all is well. The allegro starts well but there almost immediately there is a drop of tension, the exposition isn’t repeated – there is no excuse for this, not least because there is room on the disk to take it. The movement progresses pleasantly, but without tension or drama, until the lead into the recapitulation when, suddenly, the performance really takes off, and, aided by some trenchant playing, there are thrills and excitement aplenty. The middle movements are OK, but lacking in subtlety. The finale, like the first movement, starts well but the main body of the movement lacks drive and direction – it’s like reading a story to a child and not doing all the voices; it’s monochrome – which is such a waste of really good orchestral playing.
The 2nd Symphony begins very well, with an easy-going start, which grows to the first climax then falls away again to the development section. The exposition isn’t repeated despite Brahms bothering to write first and second time bars. From this point onwards I felt a decided lack of tension and drama, and the towering climaxes of the first movement were never really scaled. The slow movement never, for one moment, felt like the emotional core of the work but the scherzo was nicely handled. The finale, although spirited, fails to take off. The 3rd Symphony is performed in the same way. Good start, then a dropping of tension and power at the start of the development section of the first movement. By the start of the recapitulation the performance feels laboured and dull. And the rest of the performance failed to grip me at any time and in any way.
Although the first movement of the 4th Symphony suffers from a little strange rubato which seems mannered and is unnecessary, there is a fine overall sweep and forward momentum. The slow movement feels slightly too slow, and it doesn’t quite flow as it should but the scherzo is all fire and power. The finale doesn’t contain the clout and tension which it requires.
The problem here is the old predicament of what do you do if you’re asked to perform works which are well known through great recordings and the memory of great live performances? Butt’s task is a difficult one for there appears to be over 450 recordings of these works currently available – from Mengelberg and Weingartner in the 1930s to Valimir Jurowski in 2008, and there may be more recent ones I have missed. My main problem with these performances is that the hand at the helm isn’t sufficiently firm. Butt doesn’t appear to have thought out what he wants the music to do, nor where it is going and how to get there. In the performances of Brahms’s Symphonies which I admire there is a cumulative growth from start to finish, each is a logical and satisfying journey, and it’s a trip you really want to take. I am afraid that Butt is not someone I would welcome as a travelling companion. The London Symphony plays very well – how could it not do so? – but in vain, for the interpretations simply aren’t up to the mark required by a recording. In a live performance you’d accept these performances, and enjoy them, but they are not for repeated hearings, for they lack personality and strength. There are too many recordings to name as alternatives but Marin Alsop’s set with the London Philharmonic on Naxos is exemplary, as is Boult’s 1970s set, not to mention Horenstein with the London Symphony in No.1 and Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic in No.4.
Having written that, I have to tell you that the two Overtures are splendid, and Butt is totally at home here. The Tragic Overture is particularly exciting! Recording and notes are up to the standard we expect from this company.
Not for repeated hearings … they lack personality and strength.