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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1) [17:23]
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (sung in English) (2)[11:02]
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (3)[45:14]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (4) [9:07]
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (sung in Italian) (5) [68:29]
Enid Szantho (contralto)
Clifford Curzon (piano)
Rosanna Carteri (soprano), Boris Christoff (bass)
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (1, 4), New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (2, 3), Rome Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (5)/Bruno Walter
rec. Carnegie Hall, 9 November 1941 (2), 28 January 1951 (3); Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, 10 July 1947 (1, 4); RAI Auditorium, Turin 16 April 1952 (5)
PRISTINE CLASSICS PASC494 [73:41 + 77:56]

Although the three volumes of Pristine’s Bruno Walter conducts Brahms series are based around the concerts he gave with the NYPSO in 1951 (review), this final volume contains only one performance from that series, though I doubt that this will put off any prospective buyer. Walter is often thought of as a rather soft-centred conductor, a bit gemütlich, but these performances show this idea as far too simplistic.

The first CD begins with the Haydn Variations, a piece which can respond very well to a gemütlich approach, but this is not at all Walter’s way. In the opening chorale the perky, almost staccato, woodwind articulation sets out the performance’s stall very clearly, and the first variation has an almost Toscaninian momentum and brio, with the brass ringing out. In Var 2 the ‘sforzati’ are positively fierce, and in Var 3 the “con moto” marking is followed a little too much for my liking; there is no relaxation and the “dolce” markings in the woodwind are short-changed. Var 4 again prioritises “con moto” above “andante” and the sense of mystery and foreboding which the music should have is rather glossed over - there is almost always an undercurrent of unhappiness in Brahms. Var 5’s ‘vivace’ marking finds Walter at his best, with excellent woodwind staccati, but Var 6, although also marked “vivace” is all a bit fierce for my taste. Var 7’s lovely ‘grazioso’ is a little stiff and lacks the sense of ease it really needs, but Var 8’s sense of disquiet is nicely caught, though Walter rather ignores the “non” in “Presto non troppo”. The start of the Finale lacks the saturated sound that the strings should produce (and I do not think this is just the fault of the recording), and, as earlier in the piece, the ‘dolce’ marking for the phrases which are first given the flute and then taken up by clarinets and bassoons is not fully realised. There is insufficient sense of well-being and the sort of well-nourished orchestral sound which Furtwängler achieved here for the finale to be fully satisfying - I suppose what I am saying is that Walter isn’t gemütlich enough for me, though you may respond more favourably.

The Alto Rhapsody which follows is by far the poorest recording in this set, and the sonic complexity of soloist, chorus and orchestra in the later parts taxes it sorely. However, the performance is worth the effort, especially as this first release adds a major work to the very meagre recorded output of Enid Szantho. This Hungarian contralto, born in 1908, had a fine career, appearing the Vienna Staatsoper, Bayreuth, Salzburg, Covent Garden and the New York Met in the 30s, but made few commercial recordings, which are supplemented by a small number of surviving live broadcasts. Fortunately the voice comes over quite well in this recording, though I was at first confused by what she was singing, as the fact that the performance is in English is not mentioned anywhere in the documentation. The performance uses the translation by Robert Hugh Benson printed in the 1896 Simrock edition, slightly improved occasionally (for example the translation of the first word of “Öffne den umwölkten Blick” is changed from “Lift up” to “Open”, which is a more accurate rendering and fits the music equally well). I would imagine that Szantho learned this translation especially for this performance, and it perhaps hobbled her interpretation slightly, as, though it is beautifully sung with a warm, rich timbre, it is a little broad-brush. Her English is generally good, though there are one or two very odd vowel sounds. As is the case with many singers, she is at her best in the broad legato of the “Ist auf deinem Psalter” section. Walter conducts a lovely, affectionate performance, with the occasional string portamento adding greatly to the emotional impact.

The most important item in this set is undoubtedly the one that concludes the first CD: the First Piano Concerto. Walter never recorded this commercially and the only other known surviving live performance is the one with Horowitz from the Concertgebouw in 1936, which not only has a large chunk of the first movement missing, but has a rather facile performance from the pianist. This first issue of Walter’s performance with one of the great Brahms pianists, Clifford Curzon, is therefore of huge importance. Right from the opening tutti Walter shows his appreciation of the inherent tragedy of much of the concerto. The ‘con sordini’ violin phrases are suffused with sadness, but neither does Walter stint on the passionately dramatic element (in this concerto the hysteria is only just under the surface of the music). Curzon’s entry seemed to me at first to be a little bland, but he is simply keeping his powder dry for later. He shows his true mettle in the first long solo passage beginning at bar 158 where the poetry of his playing is breathtaking. Nor does he fail in the big-scale moments; the section after the tempestuous call to arms at bar 226 is tremendously exciting (despite a rather large number of wrong notes), as is the final peroration of the first movement from the ‘tempo I più agitato’. In the opening of the second movement, I found Walter too fast and prosaic, but as soon as Curzon enters he slows the tempo markedly. Curzon takes complete control of the performance, entering a whole new world of expressivity, to which Walter then responds. Just listen to the perfect realisation of the piano reveries at the dolce section from bar 30 and at its reappearance at the end of the movement, though, as with the first movement, Curzon is fully conscious of the underlying despair of other parts. The third movement comes almost straight on the heels of the second, wrong-footing the coughers in the audience. This movement is characterised by a tremendous momentum - there is no slowing down for the ‘noble’ piano solo between bars 66 and 90 or at the ‘espressivo’ after the double bar at 181; the expressivity is conveyed through dynamic shading and phrasing rather than tempo. After a wonderfully free cadenza, which takes Brahms’ quasi fantasia marking fully to heart, the performance ends with a tremendously exciting coda. This great performance is alone worth the price of the set.

The second CD begins with an Academic Festival Overture from the same concerts as the Haydn Variations on CD1, and is played in much the same way as that is. It is fast and lively, with perky rhythms, though perhaps without the sense of exuberant joy that the piece really needs - a little more of the “Festival” would not go amiss.

The most substantial work concludes the set, though in a rather unexpected guise. This is Brahms’ Requiem Tedesca as it is sung in Italian by the RAI chorus with two singers whom one does not immediately associate with Brahms, Boris Christoff and Rosanna Carteri. It is surprising just how much difference the use of the Italian language makes to the feel of the piece. Italian’s open vowels and significantly fewer hard consonants compared to German make for a much less sombre palette of colours. These are further enhanced by the type of vocal production to which these linguistic features lead, making for a very different experience. Performances of the Requiem can be polarised to an extent that is true of few pieces. The zeitgeist of the present day is in favour of a fast tempo approach with timings of around an hour; we live in a time which is highly suspicious of solemnity and which values lightness and clarity above almost anything else. The plethora of performances using “authentic” instruments, all of which adopt this approach, has also helped to make this way the “right” way to modern critics. Performances such as those Herreweghe, Norrington and Eliot Gardiner epitomise this approach. An older school is identified with such conductors as Furtwängler, Celibidache, Tennstedt and Giulini (all of whom, significantly, are now dead) who saw the piece in a much more metaphysical light with much slower tempi and timings of around 80 minutes, and it is this approach which I personally find much the more satisfying. Walter’s affectionate, thoughtful performance charts a way between these extremes at 67 minutes, and as a result is unlikely to alienate adherents of either side. The technical side of the performance is, surprisingly, rather fine. The only aspect of music where the past has virtually nothing to teach us today is in the technical and stylistic aspects of choral singing. Even the finest choirs of 50 years ago sound woolly and ill-blended to ears accustomed to the sound of the professional and semi-professional choirs which are now common. I did slightly blanch at the thought of an Italian choir of the early 50s in this music (being grateful only that it wasn’t a French choir of the same vintage!), but in fact they are not at all bad and sing very musically. The sound is more open-throated and “operatic” than that of a north European choir, but by this I do not mean that there is any overt emotionality or exaggeration, merely that the Italian voice production I mentioned earlier is apparent, especially in the louder passages. The male voices in particular have a rounded depth of tone not usually encountered (I suppose a point of comparison would be Domingo’s sorties into Wagner and Strauss) and the female ones are not shrill or wobbly. The pianissimo singing is beautifully rich and sustained. There is a lot of light and shade in the singing, the dynamic variety being very impressive throughout the performance. One surprising disappointment is the rather poor diction; I spent a long time unsuccessfully trawling the internet trying to find the Italian translation used, which was made doubly difficult by often not being able even to guess at what the choir was actually singing. Obviously they do not approach the technical quality of, say, the Monteverdi Choir, but I had no problem with what I was hearing. The orchestra is very fine, with some exquisite woodwind phrasing, for example in the last movement, though the recording quality makes any real judgement of the string tone impossible.

Boris Christoff was in his late 30s and at the height of his vocal powers in 1952, and the top Fs and F sharps hold no terrors. In its different way, his timbre is also quite unlike that which we are used to, with that typically Russian (or, more accurately in his case, Bulgarian) slightly gritty and back-of-the-throat vocal production. There were times, especially in “Herr, lehre doch mich” which brought “I have attained the highest power” from Boris Godunov strongly to mind. He is certainly not overtly operatic or in any way “hammy”, as he was in Gounod’s Faust, and, after a while getting acclimatised, I found his performance very impressive. Rosanna Carteri was only 21 in 1952, having had made her debut as Elsa in Lohengrin at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome at the age of 19! In the same year as this recording she sang Desdemona in Otello with Furtwängler at Salzburg and was to become an exquisite Mimi, Violetta and Adina, but retired in the mid-1960s to devote herself to her family. The traditional voice type for “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” is a very pure, floating tone with minimal vibrato. Carteri’s tone is pure with an absolutely lovely top A in bar 43, but the tone is more vibrant than we are used to. As with all aspects of this performance, there is nothing overtly operatic - no gulps or sobs or even much portamento - but there is a certain lack of the ideal sense of repose, though this is as much the result of Walter’s rather swift tempo as anything to do with Carteri.

A performance like this is a very good thing to experience. Its differences from the usual make one reassess one’s expectations, and brings home a truth which is too often forgotten in today’s obsession with the chimera of “what the composer intended”: one of the defining characteristics of a masterpiece is that is amenable to many different approaches. Although, obviously, this performance could never be a first choice version, I am very glad to have it.

The recordings in this set are all at the very least acceptable, but hardly hi-fi even for their dates. Andrew Rose has done his usual excellent job with them, but even he cannot completely tame their stridency or unclog their congestion. But, of course, anyone who is likely to buy this set knows what to expect, and the performances triumph over any inadequacies in the sound. One little irritation I had concerned the very short gaps between the movements of the Requiem; each movement flowed almost without a break from the previous one, which I found at times positively jarring.

Post Script - By pure chance I recently came across a recording of the 1937 Toscanini Queen’s Hall performance which someone has put on YouTube. I had not thought that this performance had survived, and indeed the recording quality is absolutely appalling, but the performance is utterly spell-binding (and I speak as someone who is no great fan of Toscanini). Why I bring this up is that it clocks in at an astonishing 84 minutes, over ten minutes more than his 1943 broadcast and only 3 minutes less than Celibidache’s Munich performance issued by EMI. The sound makes it hard work to listen to, but I do urge you to give it a try as the rewards are huge.

Paul Steinson


 

 




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