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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [43:43]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 4, H305* [33:08]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. 24 September 1976, Stadttheater, Göppingen; *26 April 1973, Funkstudio Villa Berg des SDR Stuttgart
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5090 [76:05]

We are not exactly short of recordings by Klaus Tennstedt of the Brahms First Symphony. There’s a live 1990 account on BBC Legends (review) and another live reading from 1992 on the LPO Live label (review). There’s also his 1983 EMI studio recording, though I’m not sure if that’s currently available other than in a large, budget-priced box (review). On all of those recordings he conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra. However, a Tennstedt recording of a Martinů symphony is quite another matter and I daresay that, notwithstanding the many merits of this present Stuttgart account of the Brahms, it will be the Martinů that will most intrigue collectors.
 
Actually, the live recordings that have emerged in the last few years have reminded us that Tennstedt did make some forays into the realm of Czech music. I like, for instance, his account of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (review). That’s on BBC Legends and the same label issued a disc of Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony that’s well worth hearing (BBCL 4139-2). However, I’m not aware that Martinů is otherwise represented in his discography.
 
The Fourth Symphony is a most attractive work. Indeed, Rob Barnett, in reviewing the classic account by Martin Turnovsky pushed the boat out, describing the piece as “one of the most luminous, rhythmically alive, optimistic, mordant, purposeful and celebratory pieces of the twentieth century.” (review) I wouldn’t dissent. Tennstedt may not displace the Turnovsky reading but he does full justice to the score. He obtains lively, animated playing from the Stuttgart orchestra in the ebullient, vital music of the first movement. The busy music in the second movement is impelled along with a good degree of brio and strong rhythmic impetus while the central lyrical Moderato section is persuasively phrased by the strings and woodwind. Tennstedt gives a fine account of the slow movement, which is the most substantial portion of the work. There’s a good deal of urgency in his atmospheric reading of this music. The finale is exciting and vigorous though there are one or two instances where Martinů’s high-lying writing taxes the violin section. Overall, this performance of Martinů’s is an impressive achievement.
 
If the Martinů attracts particular interest as a Tennstedt ‘novelty’, the performance of the Brahms First should not be dismissed simply because there are other Tennstedt recordings in the catalogue. It’s noteworthy that the above-mentioned 1990 recording plays for 46:54 while the 1992 is more expansive still, coming in at 48:56. This present 1976 account, therefore, appears on the face of it to be tauter and, generally, more fleet of foot and that’s exactly the case. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that even if you have one or other of these later performances this one has a strong claim on your attentions.
 
If I had to pick one word to describe this performance it would have to be ‘urgent’ for that word or variants on it crops up regularly in my listening notes. Right from the start Tennstedt impresses with a strong, purposeful reading of the first movement introduction in which he generates good tension. The allegro itself is launched with gusto and thereafter the music is full of drive and vitality. Indeed, at times the performance is positively electrifying. The lovely Andante sostenuto is purposeful too, and though Tennstedt doesn’t short change us on the lyrical side he keeps the music moving forward. To be honest, the orchestra lacks, perhaps, just that last degree of finesse and polish when compared to the LPO in the later accounts but we must remember that there was, by the 1990s, a longstanding relationship between Tennstedt and that orchestra whereas the Stuttgart players would not have been anything like as familiar with him. In any event, it’s a more than acceptable performance of the movement and as the end approaches the solo violin and horn players are accomplished and eloquent.
 
The third movement is fleet and flowing at the start and then becomes a bit more animated still. I felt in this movement that perhaps Tennstedt could and should have given the music just a little more breathing space at times. The introduction to the finale is dramatic and powerful; the big horn theme is expansively delivered. In the main allegro Tennstedt builds up the tension and excitement as the music unfolds and there’s considerable drive and intensity in the music making. Here, as elsewhere, Tennstedt gets a keen response from the orchestra and the end of the movement - with no excessive, rhetorical slowing for the chorale - blazes with excitement. There’s some thirty seconds of applause at the end.
 
This is a terrific reading of the Brahms symphony and whilst I remain a strong admirer of the two later live readings I’m very glad indeed to have this somewhat different and more urgent interpretation in my Tennstedt collection.
 
The recorded sound for both performances is perfectly satisfactory. There’s more concert hall distance on the Brahms recording whereas the Martinů performance is recorded somewhat more closely - though by no means oppressively so. I don’t think an audience can have been present for the latter recording. The Brahms comes from a public concert but, apart from the applause at the end, I detected no audience noise.
 
Both these recordings are very valuable additions to the conductor’s discography. Tennstedt was born in 1926 so he would have just turned fifty when the Brahms performance was given while the Martinů recording was made just a couple of years after he defected from East Germany to the West. These two excellent recordings give us an idea of why he quickly became so highly regarded once he was ‘discovered’ by North American orchestras in 1974.
 
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 1

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