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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [30:08]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884/5)* [37:20]
*London Symphony Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
rec. 6 October 1938, *14 February 1938, Abbey Road Studio No 1, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC334 [67:28]

Some years ago I reviewed a set containing the recordings of all four Brahms symphonies which Felix Weingartner made in London between February 1938 and February 1940. Now Pristine Audio has released the last two of these symphonies in new transfers by Andrew Rose. He has processed the first two symphonies separately (PASC281) but I’ve not heard the results.
 
I don’t find that my view of either interpretation has changed. Last time I described Weingartner’s approach to the Third symphony as “lean and muscular”; indeed, that description could be applied equally well to all his Brahms interpretations. It’s possible that part of that may be attributable to the recorded sound but mostly it’s a question of style. In many ways I like it; it’s direct and bracing. However, since writing that review back in 2006 I’ve heard the performances of all the Brahms symphonies by both Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The approach of both conductors is similarly lean and direct, shorn of any extraneous padding. By comparison with them Weingartner fails to shape the phrases quite as winningly. These more recent conductors shape the wonderful conclusion to the Third symphony more satisfyingly - though Weingartner’s way with this passage is convincing and of a piece with his clear-eyed approach to the symphony as a whole.
 
Last time I wrote of the Fourth that Weingartner’s view of the work is “clear and forthright”, not least in his disciplined control of rhythms. In his hands I found the finale trenchant and darkly powerful; I still do. The performances of both symphonies are well worth hearing.
 
What of the transfers? Andrew Rose admits in a booklet note that he found both recordings a challenge, as he has found several recordings emanating from Abbey Road in the late 1930s. However, he has persevered, using Columbia LPs from the 1960s. It’s been interesting to compare these, movement by movement, with those which I’d previously heard that David Lennick made for Living Era.
 
In comparing the Third I listened to each movement in the Living Era transfer first. In each case I found the Pristine audio transfer is preferable. Rose’s work offers warmer, fuller sound with rather better bass definition. For example, the sound of the woodwinds and then of the answering string phrases at the start of II has better definition. It’s a similar story in I and III; the Living Era sound seems a little flatter. At the opening of the finale the Pristine, as reproduced on my equipment, evidenced a better, fuller bass response and the jagged chords (from 0:50) have more body; they sound somewhat shrill on Living Era. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the wonderful coda (from 6:43) is more satisfyingly reproduced on Pristine, the sound having a bit more warmth and presence.
 
When it came to the Fourth I reversed the process and listened first to each movement in the Pristine transfer. In the first movement I found I had a slight preference for the Pristine over the Living Era but that the difference between the two was slight. I assessed honours as even in II. Andrew Rose commented that the recording of the Fourth is less well recorded than the Third in the louder sections and goes so far as to describe the sound as sometimes having a tendency to “coagulate into a rather heavy mush”. There’s evidence of this in III where the booming timpani tend to compromise the tutti sound. In some ways the leaner, dare I say thinner sound from the Living Era transfer alleviates this problem but the Pristine sound is more pleasant to hear. On balance I prefer the sound that Pristine offers over the course of the symphony as a whole but, as indicated earlier, the differences between the two transfers are not as marked in this symphony.
 
If you already own the Living Era transfers I would not suggest discarding them - I won’t be doing so. Their set is offered with good notes by David Patmore whereas Pristine Audio merely reprint an extract from The Gramophone’s 1938 review and a brief note about the transfer. The Living Era transfers are offered as part of a two-disc set of all four symphonies; The Pristine transfers reproduce Weingartner’s performances of the last two Brahms symphonies, which are well worth hearing, to best advantage.
 
John Quinn 

Masterwork Index: Symphony 3 ~~ Symphony 4

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