Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98 (1885) [39:35]1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K543 (1788) [25:19]2
London Symphony Orchestra/Josef Krips
rec. Kingsway Hall, London 117, 19, 20 April 1950, 218 December 1951. ADD
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 is mannered.
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 Mozart 39.
Michael Greenhalgh  
A refreshing, classical Brahms 4 but a somewhat uneven Mozart 39