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Jonathan Woolf
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 (1880) [9:35]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 (1877) [38:29]
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 (1884-85) [41:58] ¹
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83 (1878-81) [48:40]
Elly Ney (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Max Fiedler
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Max Fiedler ¹
rec. 1930-31; Concerto 1939-40, Berlin
Mono recordings
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 363 [72:43 + 67:08]

Max Fiedler (1859-1939) has always occupied an intriguingplace in the history of Brahms conducting on disc. He, like Weingartner, knew Brahms and they are the only two such conductors to have recorded Brahms’s music. However Fritz Steinbach’s death in 1916 robbed posterity of a more direct link and it is that loss — Steinbach, was revered by Toscanini and Boult (and Weingartner himself), both of whose Brahms performances reveal characteristic associations and expressive alliances — that is one of the most acute in our direct experience of Brahms conducting on disc.
Fiedler’s conducting of Brahms was channelled more through the influence of Hans von Bülow and is characterised by certain expressive gestures that may seem strange to a contemporary listener. He recorded the Second Symphony in 1931 and it’s full of intensity and supple lyricism, shot through with a nobility and sonorous colour that is strong and bold in climaxes. That said, it is dappled with typically Fiedleresque luftpausen that, whilst bearing internal logic, lead to a mass loss of momentum. In that respect, and in most others, it’s the polar opposite of Weingartner’s own 1940 LPO recording of the symphony. For the Fourth Symphony it’s as if centrifugal force has been applied to the opening, as the sense of energy being retarded is intense. It takes an age to launch the work and even then a regular pulse is never really established, as Fiedler constantly varies rubati and pauses. These constant shifts from the music’s basic pulse generate a remarkably unsettling effect. I’ve recently been listening again to Toscanini’s live BBC performance of this Symphony from a few years later than Fiedler’s 1930 Berlin State Opera Orchestra recording, and though there are only 30 or so seconds between the two performances of the slow movement, because of Toscanini’s rhythmic pointing and attention to detail, Fiedler sounds much more ponderous and leaden. Granted he had at his disposal an orchestra possibly less used to his very particular wishes than the Berlin Philharmonic, with which the remainder of this sequence was made. Additionally, fine though it was, the State Opera Orchestra was not the Philharmonic’s technical equal.
The question of his metrical over-flexibility is probably one that should be addressed in relation to his exposure to the School of von Bülow as well as to his own predilections. It is no doubt a fascinating approach and it does bear repeated listening, though I must note the irony of the situation, which is that for all his expressive gesturing, his luftpausen and unstable rhythm, it’s Toscanini — who is more direct and lithe — who is also the more expressive, singing and transformative in this music.
There are two other examples of Fiedler’s Brahms in this excellently transferred twofer. The Academic Festival Overture is sonorous and direct, bluffly confident. Then there’s the egregious Elly Ney in the Second Piano Concerto which was recorded in 1939 but, after Fiedler’s death, parts of it were remade with another, anonymous conductor. In his note, Mark Obert-Thorn mentions that Alois Melichar is a possible suspect. In the event five of the twelve 78 sides were redone, and he notes which is which - a helpful solution.
The piano tone is quite shallow and the various sides, given the two conductors involved, may or may not convince in the context of a seamless whole. Others are not as persuaded as I am. Fiedler had played the piano part for Brahms in concert so clearly he had been able to master its manifold complexities, which is not something that could always be said of Ney. Clearly she wanted retakes of those sides that were pianistically splashy but I noted one particularly splashy passage with Fiedler conducting that was left alone; or maybe the replacement was even splashier; who knows? Ney plays with rugged directness, somewhat symmetrical rhythmically and occasionally stolid. The cello soloist is Tibor de Machula, later legendary principal of the Concertgebouw.
A more interesting example of Fiedler’s Brahms accompanying comes in the case of a live broadcast of the First Concerto with Alfred Hoehn [Arbiter 160]. I’d also suggest you track down his partnership with Siegfried Borries in the Violin Concerto, a live Berlin broadcast from 1936 on Music & Arts CD-1092, which also contains a performance of Schumann’s First Symphony. There’s no doubt Fiedler is a remarkably interesting conductor, rather more so than the jibe of ‘tempo-rubato’ conductor might suggest (the jibe was Weingartner’s). His rhythmic licence and his highly personal approach add notably to one’s analysis of divergent traditions of Brahms conducting in the early twentieth-century.
Jonathan Woolf