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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.68
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Franz Konwitschny
rec. Heilandskirche, Leipzig, 1962
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300839BC [48:04]

Franz Konwitschny made this recording only weeks before his death for the East German Eterna label, his usual recording company. Eterna had links with both DGG and Philips, and older collectors may recall Konwitschny’s LP recordings of Beethoven and other composers appearing on the latter label.

No apology is needed for the fact that, in both conception and execution, this is a performance in the grandest German manner. The playing of the Leipzig orchestra is virtually beyond compare – precise, wonderfully assured and seemingly limitless in its reserves of tonal power. Konwitschny’s tempos are broad – his reading lasts just over 48 minutes – but the music is never allowed to become turgid or slack.

How did the conductor manage this? In his Great Conductors (Munich, 2007), quoted and translated in Berlin Classics’ notes, music critic Wolfgang Schreiber ‘ascribed a high degree of expressive intensity to this recording’ and added:

“To convey Brahms’s complex musical language, Konwitschny addressed himself to the essence of feeling, the conviction of attack, the profundity of lyricism. His virtues are legato playing, accuracy of phrasing, power and richness of sound, above all – the Brahms principle – the broad sweep of tempos, bowing, symphonic ensemble. With Konwitschny…the music had the opportunity to sweep out in great arcs as confessional music.”

The warmth and expansiveness of this performance initially inclined me to compare it with Bruno Walter’s late stereo recording on Sony. On checking I found that Walter dispatches the score in around 44 minutes and is somewhat more ‘classical’ in the outer movements (despite the widespread view – in my opinion, a mistaken one – that he dragged his feet in this performance). Otto Klemperer took around the same time in his EMI stereo recording. Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s live EMI recording runs for around 47 minutes, but his spititual intensity defies comparison. So it would seem that Konwitschny’s reading, while firmly in the German tradition, is based on no particular model other than his own.

The nature of the performance to come is proclaimed in the First movement’s slow introduction: it is an emphatic and powerful exposition of the polyphony created by the rising line in the violins and cellos and the descending line in the woodwind and violas. The Allegro starts vitally, with conductor and orchestra finding even more power at the climaxes and the majestic contribution of the Leipzig bass instruments underlying the power of the whole. As was customary at the time the recording was made, the exposition repeat is not played.

The playing of the Second movement, a relatively gentle Andante sostenuto, is warm but not drawn out, avoiding lushness. The important passages from the solo violin and oboe are admirably played. In the Third movement, Konwitschny has the requisite subtlety and finds a convincing tempo relationship between the Trio and the Allegretto passages which surround it.

In the conductor’s handling of the First movement is to be found the key to his approach to the Finale: a concentrated exposition of the slow introduction which transitions (after a gloriously played horn call) to a broadly-paced but alert and triumphant Allegro. It is in this movement, however, that problems with the sound (evident from the very start of the recording) really begin to stand between us and the music. It’s too reverberant, resulting in clouding of detail. I cannot say whether this characteristic is entirely due to the acoustic of the recording venue or whether artificial reverberation was added at some stage. The mighty discord which Brahms creates from around 13 minutes onwards loses most of its internal clarity and instead becomes a grand confusion of sound. Much the same is true at later climaxes. Yet Konwitschny presses ahead and somehow carries us with him, except for a pronounced slowing at almost the very end (later than is usually the case with conductors who slow down in this movement). Although mannered and unnecessary, I don’t think this rhetorical gesture prevents the performance from being a great one.

Before concluding, I’m duty-bound to mention a packaging problem. This CD comes in a cardboard ‘gatefold’ packet. Both ‘pages’ form sleeves, in one of which is a booklet and in the other a smaller, removable sleeve which contains the CD. This inner sleeve was – as so often – too tight to enable the disc to be removed without dragging it out with one’s fingers, leaving corrosive fingerprints on the playing surface and possibly scuffing it as well. The only alternative (which I adopted) was to cut the sleeve with scissors in a way which enabled the disc to be shaken out. To me, this inconvenience warrants a design re-think.

But it’s not the packaging and certainly not the performance which prevents this production from being a library choice – it’s the sound. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this CD as worthy of a place in any collection alongside other great performances blessed with superior sound. The booklet includes an English translation of excellent, if slightly dated, notes on the music taken from the original LP release.

Rob W McKenzie

 

 




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