Listening to this Brahms Symphony 4 I was struck how cleverly
constructed it is to defy expectation. For instance, the first
movement second theme (tr. 1 1:28) starts with what seems just
a fanfare introduction to a broad theme on the cellos, but it’s
that introduction that gets explored and becomes more powerful
late in the exposition and still more in the development. Then
what sounds as though it’s going to be a repeat of the
exposition (3:53) turns out to be the start of the development.
And the recapitulation (6:35) begins in slow, philosophic fashion
before picking up exposition speed.
The transparency of Josef Krips’ classical, objective
performance makes all this clear. It comes across lyrically
and freshly with no special luxuriating. A good example (from
5:49) is the clarinets’ duet. It’s in brief alternation
with the oboes followed by that sequence of 16 chords alternating
between strings and wind headed by and surveying the beginning
of the second half of the first theme. Krips presents this with
an admirable coolness and appreciation of its progression. You
won’t hear this passage better done anywhere. Later he
allows himself just one extravagance: an acceleration from 10:25
in the coda which I find entirely acceptable because it ensures
it is thrilling, as it should be.
So are there any drawbacks? The sound is clear but very bright
which makes the violins rather glassy in upper register, the
oboes acidic. The bass is correspondingly dry. The timpani is
almost inaudible - a pity in the 4 ff crotchet beats
at the very end of the movement, the only articulated beats
at that point. This is a bit hypercritical for a 1950 recording
but I say it so your expectations regarding recording quality
will be realistic. This transfer still has more clarity, presence
and impact than those of the contemporary recordings I compare
below. And you can sample the entire first movement for yourself
on the Pristine Audio website.
I compared the 1951 New York Philharmonic/Bruno Walter (IDIS
6392/93). I cite this because it’s currently available.
You can also hear it in cleaner sound on Sony France 5081732
from the original masters; sadly no longer available. Here are
the comparative timings:
Walter’s performance is, in the main,
more measured, more full-blooded, romantic and dramatized. The
opening has a crestfallen cast, the second theme is starchier.
Walter makes more of the mysterious elements, in particular
the strings’ semiquaver rustlings which are generally
contrasted with the martial aspect of the second theme.
Krips’ refusal to gild the lily is again apparent in the
slow movement (tr. 2) with a second theme which is an ingenious,
broader, higher register idealized version on violins (2:40)
of the opening of a first theme they have only hitherto played
pizzicato. It too transforms into something more vigorous
to allow a greater contrast for the even broader and, in Krips’
hands, calmer third theme (3:40) on the cellos delicately embellished
by the first violins. Krips starts the development (5:48) with
dreamier strings cleanly offset by more alert woodwind. The
crown of the movement is the return of the third theme on full
strings which Krips makes serene, stately and dignified.
Walter’s slow movement is more ruminative and savoured.
As a result the second theme doesn’t evolve naturally
from the first as it does with Krips, nor does it progress as
naturally. Walter’s third theme, however, is beautifully
rich and suddenly freer in flow but its return is glutinous.
Krips’ scherzo (tr. 3) opens a mite formally. Its reprise
is much better with a graceful second theme (0:54), just as
marked and a warm and rosy central interlude. Piccolo, triangle
and a third kettledrum, all added for this movement, are clearly
evident with the timpani focus much improved. Walter’s
scherzo opens in a rather heavy-handed manner. It too improves
after the reprise but his slow treatment of the second theme
The thirty variations of the passacaglia theme which make up
the finale (tr. 4) are presented starkly and clearly by Krips.
Notable is the jagged outline in Variation 4 of the first entry
of the violins and violas not playing pizzicato (1:03).
I would also highlight the creamy yet also relatively dispassionate
flute solo in Variation 12 (3:14), the woodwind sympathizing
in Variation 13 (3:53) and the trombones adding their comforting
weight in Variation 14 (4:30). The woodwind confirm the E major
sunlight of these last three variations in Variation 15 (5:01)
before we are back to stark reality in E minor and Variation
16 (5:38). For me, in the alternating strings and woodwind of
Variation 19 (7:18) Krips is a touch too laid back but his coda
(8:56) displays due increase of tension.
Walter’s finale is darker-hued and heavier. His slower
approach lumbers and is over-rhetorical, though powerful and
more sonorous than Krips in the later variations. Walter’s
flute solo is a distraught, insistent lament, his trombones’
variation more grave.
Krips’ Mozart Symphony 39 makes a generous but not for
me as striking a bonus. The Adagio introduction to the
first movement (tr. 5) is spacious but also rather marmoreal
and shapeless; its strong climax lacks real tension. The Allegro
main body has more grace in its opening and panache in its tuttis.
I compared the 1949 recording by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert
von Karajan (EMI 4768762). Here are the comparative timings:
Karajan’s imposing introduction is slower
than Krips’ (2:58 against 2:42) yet more successful because
of its sense of direction, shape and tension. His Allegro
opening appears much lighter and, if his tuttis have
a touch more verve than Krips’, that might be because
the timpani focus (here we go again) of EMI’s recording
is better. In one respect, however, I prefer Krips: his violins’
slithering semiquaver cascades are more cleanly articulated,
not so much thrown off as those of Karajan.
In the slow movement (tr. 6) Krips dances neatly, but I felt
rather cautiously. His determination and direction are reserved
for what are its darkly contrasted yet transitional passages
in F minor, the first at 1:47. Moreover, in the opening section
intonation is a bit dodgy. Karajan, on the other hand, offers
sweetness of violin tone, lovingly shaped and moulded phrases.
Everything is fitted beautifully into place, while incorporating
dramatic passages in F minor.
Krips makes the Minuet elegant and lilting, if rather more at
a leisurely Andante than the marked Allegretto.
His Trio is blithe. Karajan’s Minuet has more impetus
and with it majesty, though less relaxation than Krips. His
Trio is more mellifluous. Krips’ finale is scintillating
in its rigorous articulation, though the recording of the strings
is again somewhat glassy. Karajan here is faster yet lighter
and more frolicsome, less effortful.
In sum, a refreshing, classical Brahms 4 but a somewhat uneven