Matthew LOCKE (1621/2-1677)
Musick for His Majesty's Sackbutts and Cornetts (1661?) [8:47]*
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 38 (Spring) (1841) [30:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877) [39:11]*
London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész
rec. Royal Festival Hall, November 1965, *February 1966
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4229-2 [79:31]
An online correspondent, some years ago, likened the reverence accorded in some quarters to conductor István Kertész, who died in his forties in a swimming accident, to that given John F. Kennedy - parallel cases in which, perhaps, the actual accomplishments of a truncated career have been overvalued. The argument had some merit: some of the conductor's Decca recordings -- particularly the early Dvorák symphonies - could be square and rather careful rhythmically, which didn't exactly suggest the white heat of inspiration.
Well, this BBC Legends collection should put those questions to rest. This 1965 performance of the Schumann - a score that didn't figure in Kertész's commercial discography - finds the conductor drawing a performance from his orchestra through a combination of fine musicianship and a palpable, contagious enthusiasm.
Kertész's strengths, on this showing, were not primarily those of a disciplinarian: the transition into the first movement's Allegro molto vivace takes in some oozing, generalized sonority, and tuttis in motion go with more vitality than real precision. Still, it's hard to resist the hearty swing of the main theme's dotted rhythms; the transition into the second group goes smoothly, without disrupting the basic pulse; and in the development the flute takes over the theme with real relish. The Larghetto has an expansive tenderness; Kertész surprises us in the Scherzo by sticking to the basic tempo for the second Trio, contrasting the resultant weightiness with the buoyancy of the principal theme. The conductor's care over varied articulations enlivens the finale; he maintains tension in the development at a steady tempo, and elicits a searching quality from the horns' transitional phrase at 3:30. The coda's sheer exuberance is the sort of thing that must have led the Cleveland Orchestra players to request him for their Music Director, though the orchestra's board opted for the better-established Lorin Maazel.
The conductor's stylistic grasp is less sure in the Brahms symphony - which, paradoxically, he did take into the studio, not in London, but als Gast in Vienna - but his natural musicality enlivens the basically conventional interpretive framework. Thus, he doesn't go to great lengths to clarify the first movement's rather full textures, but he makes sure that the right musical elements are always heard. In the Adagio non troppo the conductor seems to be marking time through the admittedly elusive first group - Brahms's various melodic fragments never quite coalesce into a full-fledged melody - but at least he keeps it moving, which is hardly the worst strategy; the more mobile second subject has an appealing lightness. The Allegretto grazioso is a pleasant and airy intermezzo. Kertész's finale chugs along nicely, giving us a jolt - the good kind - at 7:47 when the syncopated second subject motif emerges audibly in the basses. Unfortunately, the triumphant finish is marred when some nincompoop in the audience begins applauding in the spaces between the final three chords!
The Locke seems a unlikely choice for a symphonic concert, but before the advent of "historical" performance, the instrumental repertoire was less rigidly stratified than it has since become. This account exemplifies the best qualities of contemporary orchestral playing: the lively passages are buoyant, propelled by a quasi-syncopated "push," while the broader ones have a dignified carriage. At the start of the funeral march at 6:27, the trumpet wanders sharp; otherwise, the tuning is exemplary, and the resplendent, full-bodied sonority is the sort that only a modern brass choir can supply.
The sound is good broadcast-quality analog, with a closer perspective and fuller sound in the 1966 performances. For what it's worth, Kertész, who regularly observed exposition repeats in his commercial recordings, omits them here; I missed those in the Schumann - particularly that in the first movement - but minded losing the long one in the Brahms less.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Fine musicianship and a palpable, contagious enthusiasm.