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Conducting the Brahms Symphonies
by Christopher Dyment
Publ. 2016, 268 pages
Available in hardcover and as e-book BOYDELL & BREWER
This book is a continuation and development of Dyment's excellent 'Toscanini in Britain'. In that book Dyment finishes with a supplement, or 'Historical excursus as he put it. It is from here that he initiates his basic argument. In general terms it is a much more specialised book than the main part of 'Toscanini in Britain', which is more biographical in tone. The new book focuses in more detail on specific performances of the Brahms symphonies, each movement, each section from the score. Dyment wants to reach a stage where each symphony comes closer to an authentic performance. Dyment starts by speculating on the performances Brahms actually heard and approved. Apart from the composer, Dyment focuses on Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), who Brahms certainly heard conduct his symphonies. As Steinbach left no recorded evidence of his work, Dyment has to rely more on documentary evidence, mostly reviews of Steinbach's Brahms interpretations. But also from the little known Kapellmeister Walter Blume who wrote some notes shortly before his death in 1933 under the title Brahms in der Meininger Tradition. Dyment admits that these notes are not ideal, since they are often shaded by his affective relationship with the conductor, lacking any kind of focused, objective critique. Also, it is not absolutely certain how many Steinbach Brahms concerts Blume attended. Dyment then proceeds to test the validity of Blume's notes against a select group of conductors from the past, either from their conducting style, or from the recordings – if any – they made.
Dyment focuses on basically four conductors: Weingartner, who was heard by Brahms in 1895 with the Vienna Philharmonic and was highly praised by the composer; Toscanini, who attended many concerts conducted by Steinbach and maintained throughout his long life that Steinbach's Brahms performances constituted an interpretive paradigm. The great Italian conductor never, as far as I know, discussed Steinbach's performances in any kind of detail. But his photographic memory informed the many recordings he made of Brahms symphonies. In fact, and inferred by Dyment, Toscanini's recorded performances, especially the earlier recordings, are paradigmatic. His 1935 recording of the 4th Symphony, with the BBC Symphony orchestra in the old Queen’s Hall, is probably the most accurate document we have of the Steinbach tradition. Of course it is very much the maestro's own rendition, but in its overall design it very likely follows the Steinbach examples. Here I would also add the superb performance of No.4 in New York 1939, with his own NBC orchestra, who play with more precision than the BBC orchestra. Anyone with a heart condition should play this with caution, especially the volcanic passacaglia finale! But Dyment makes no mention of this. And then we come to Fritz Busch. Busch entered Steinbach's conducting class in Cologne in 1906; Steinbach was soon highly impressed with him, hailing him as the 'conductor of the future'. Adrian Boult was first influenced greatly by Hans Richter, but later, like Toscanini, by Steinbach, especially in Brahms. Dyment has a preference for Boult's 1954 Brahms recordings with the LPO, and indeed they are very fine, particularly in the 4th, with plenty of drama and power, but I think his later Brahms cycle with the LPO in the early 70's finds the LPO in much better form. Also the stereo sound makes much more orchestral detail audible, especially with Boult's antiphonal placing of first and second violins. And there is a recently issued CD of a superb live performance from the Albert Hall (1976) of the 1st Symphony with Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, again not mentioned by Dyment
Much of the book is taken up with discussion/comparisons of other eminent conductors including such luminous maestros' as Stokowski, Mengelberg, Knappertbusch, Furtwangler, Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth. All the conductors he mentioned attained some status in their life-time as conductors whose conducting of Brahms was somehow considered authentic, either in itself, or by association with Brahms and Steinbach. A good example here is Max Fiedler, who was an admirer and disciple of Hans von Bulow in the latter's Hamburg years. In his day Fiedler was much admired for his lucidity and sense of structure in Brahms. But he was also criticised for his 'stretched' tempi, distorted dynamics, and frequent use of the Luftpausen which was more fashionable at the time, although a conductor like Bruno Walter was still deploying them in some of his later recordings of the 50s and 60s. Fiedler left some recordings of Brahms symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1930. His recording of the 4th symphony, to take one example, is in many ways quite distinguished, but it does include some very distracting (for today’s ears) rubato, Luftpausen and other tempo manipulation. But for Dyment, although he finds it interesting, it is, with other negative documentation, mostly reviews, ruled out.
Another interesting case is that of Wilhelm Furtwängler, who Dyment clearly dislikes. Today Furtwängler is treated with a reverence by some musicians and collectors, almost achieving auratic status. He was, as with Abendroth, a student of Felix Mottl, the great Wagnerian of his day, who had copious correspondence with Cosima Wagner. Of course Furtwängler adopted a Wagnerian flexibility in matters of tempo, sounding particularly convincing in Wagner, although not necessarily in Brahms. Although, from my own experience, I can appreciate Furtwängler's flexible approach as much as the more classical approaches of Weingartner and Toscanini. Furtwangler is the only conductor who Dyment criticises in a non-musical, ad hominem manner, quoting from a letter in 1938 from Bruno Walter to Toscanini regarding Furtwängler's attempt to 'muscle in on the 1938 Salzburg Festival', his 'bad heart', and a narcissism which knew no bounds; all this for Walter, and for Dyment, 'expressing itself in his music-making'. Also here the date (1938) is ominous! Dyment quotes several times an 'informed friend's' conclusion that 'that 'they all did that sort of thing' (referring to particularly Furtwängler's and Abendroth's flexible tempi with free use of 'distortive rubato') and so Brahms expected it'. In a sense Dyment's study is a concerted attempt to disprove this claim.
Dyment goes into lengthy detail regarding what could be called the 'Abendroth case'. He reproduces a photo of Abendroth in 1909 which shows him as an exceptionally 'good-looking' young man, if also quite stern and un-smiling (early images of Klemperer at the time also show an un-smiling, stern young man), although with Klemperer the stern countenance was adopted well into his 80s). But with Abendroth I was strongly reminded of Nietzsche's 'Blonde Beast' from his great book 'Genealogy of Morals'. Dyment also reproduces the Abendroth image (enlarged) in his earlier 'Toscanini in Britain'.
In 1915 Abendroth took over from Steinbach at Cologne. He was already considered to be a 'Master Conductor' and was probably rated higher at the time than his junior by three years, Furtwängler. Because of the Steinbach connection, and the frequent inclusion of Brahms in his concert programmes, Abendroth was seen as the keeper of the flame of authenticity, especially in Brahms. But Dyment quite convincingly rejects this idea. It was suggested by some that the Cologne players 'passed on' to Abendroth' 'interpretive' insights from Steinbach on performing Brahms symphonies. This was the era of the 'domineering conductor' and Abendroth's 'job was to drill his players with his own ideas and reproach rather than accept ideas culled from players about how best to perform the Brahms symphonies'. Dyment speculates on whether or not Abendroth might have attended a concert of Steinbach conducting Brahms, but finds no actual evidence for this. It is through a detailed study/comparison of Abendroth’s recordings of Brahms's symphonies that Dyment's case is confirmed. Abendroth, like his friend Furtwangler, deploys many manipulations of tempo, 'broadly fluxed tempos' and 'broad swathes of substantial departures from basic tempos', as Dyment puts it, and they are consistent throughout Abendroth's long recording career. In relation to a 1926 visit to London by Abendroth, conducting Brahms with the LSO, Dyment reproduces some quite negative reviews, mostly from the 'Times' critic (never actually named). Again the critical focus is on Abendroth's tempo manipulations - for 'a cheap dramatic effect', as the critic puts it. One thing we do learn here is how detailed and comprehensive London criticism was then as compared to the few lines of unsubstantiated opinion we mostly read now. Dyment asks rhetorically if the likes of Busch. Boult and Toscanini, would have admired Steinbach 'as they did' if such extremes of rubato etc. had been present in what they heard. Quoting from a recent and domineering politician, for Dyment the answer must be 'No, no and no again' I thought this bit of humour was unnecessary, as Dyment makes the same point over and over again; he doesn't like conductors who engage in heavy rubato and tempo fluctuation. Mengelberg is dismissed for the same reasons; 'extravagant manipulations of tempo.' Hans Knappertsbusch is given the same abrupt treatment as he was told by Steinbach (when he joined his conducting class in 1908) that he had 'no talent for conducting'. I have heard many broadcast performances from Bayreuth of Knappertsbusch's 'Parsifal' and I don't recognise Dyment's 'bizarrely slow tempos'. I am not sure why Dyment includes Bruno Walter in this study. Walter had no specific contact with Steinbach, he probably never witnessed Steinbach in Brahms it seems that the only reason he is mentioned is that he was active in Munich at the time, and conducted many highly rated performances of Brahm's symphonies throughout his long career. From the recordings Walter left seems that his style was more flexible and lyrical than say Weingartner, although it was not so given to extremes in rubato, as already discussed regarding the likes of Abendroth and Furtwängler. The later Brahms recordings he made in California are not so rhythmically sharp and structurally coherent as was his Brahms 1 in 1939 with Toscanini's NBC orchestra, not mentioned by Dyment,
The inclusion of Walter is made all the more curious by the fact that Otto Klemperer who, like Walter, was a student/disciple of Mahler, is excluded. Klemperer had studied with composer/conductor Wilhelm Berger who was Steinbach's successor in Meiningen in 1903. Klemperer arrived in Cologne in 1917 to work with an orchestra only recently vacated by Steinberg. It is interesting to note, as Klemperer's biographer Peter Heyworth tells us, that Klemperer's relationship with Kapellmeister Abendroth was, to say the least, strained. Klemperer conducted a more modern repertoire, including Mahler, and was critical of Abendroth's more conservative repertoire. But why is Klemperer, who had far more association/contact with the Steinbach circle, excluded, and Walter, who had no such contact, included, with a list of recordings etc. included? Also Klemperer's Brahms (on record from the 20s to the late 50s) is virtually free from the agogic tempo distortions etc. associated with conductors like Abendroth. His Brahms cycle with the vintage Philharmonia in the late 50s received general critical acclaim far surpassing that accorded to Walter's later cycle of the same period, which was considered to be rather inflated and rhythmically out of focus.
Although Dyment is critical of excessive rubato he does make it clear that he is not against rubato per se. He gives many examples of what he terms 'minor fluctuations of tempo'. And those who heard Steinbach comment on his 'subtle use of rubato' For Dyment 'subtle rubato' adds to the overall flow and structure of a movement, and of the whole symphony. The more organic use of rubato, by say Furtwängler, whose flexibility of tempo corresponds to an overall organic structure, never having an 'added-on' or arbitrary affect, as with some of Furtwängler's later imitators, Dyment finds unacceptable. Here I find the Furtwangler style convincing, especially in Wagner. But as mentioned above, Dyment takes a generally negative view of Furtwängler. Dyment's paradigm here seems to be the Toscanini 1935 BBC recording of the Brahms 4. Here Toscanini finds a flexibility and lyricism that he didn't always achieve in his later NBC performances, magnificent as many of these are. The great Italian conductor maintains a coherent inner structure, overlaid by a subtle rubato, lyricism and flexibility, which never detracts from, indeed adds to, the overall and stunning symphonic unity and drama. Although Toscanini always praised Steinbach's Brahms, he never provided any kind of description or interpretive detail. So ultimately we can never know how much Toscanini's Brahms was a reflection of the Steinbach style. Although I can't imagine Steinbach surpassing Toscanini, who had an unparalleled sense of symphonic drama and dynamic/lyrical contrast and coherence. Dyment also notes that Toscanini even surpasses Weingartner in his sense of drama, and Weingartner ranks as one of Dyment's most favoured conductors.
Throughout this study Dyment adheres quite rigorously to a rather conservative methodology, which puts prime importance to the performances sanctioned by the composer, particularly to Steinbach, although there is no actual recording of Steinbach's conducting. Dyment, early in this study, has noted how equivocal the composer was in questions of interpretation, but despite this he still attaches importance to the composer and his early performers.
I doubt whether Dyment ever read 'The Death of the Author' by Roland Barthes. Barthes contends that the work (for Barthes mostly literary texts) goes through myriad stages of interpretations, readership, which change over time - a kind of conjunctional analysis in which the work is increasingly detached from the composer’s/writer’s original intentions. And this applies even more to classical music, which relies on the mediation of the interpreter, the conductor. And in this sense the score becomes increasingly open to a range of different styles of interpretation. As I have shown, great conductors like Klemperer and Furtwängler gave very impressive renditions of the Brahms symphonies. but both of these are either ignored (Klemperer) or dismissed (Furtwängler), because they fail to adhere (Furtwängler) to Dyment's rather rigid criteria of an imagined performative criteria. Furtwängler becomes a kind of Bette-noir for Dyment because of his flexible tempo formations. And although Toscanini admired Steinbach's Brahms, there is little evidence that he based his own performances of Brahms strictly on the Steinbach example - I can't imagine that Steinbach exceeded Toscanini’s example. In any case Toscanini's own Brahms interpretations changed over time.
There is a DVD of Carlos Kleiber conducting the Brahms 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1991 from the Musikverein in Vienna. Here Kleiber adhered to no Brahms tradition. Carlos was certainly influenced by his father Erich, but Erich Kleiber conducted very little Brahms, and certainly adhered to no Brahms tradition. Yet Carlos Kleiber conducts a superb rendition of the Brahms 2, as valid as that of any of the conductors Dyment mentions. In this sense, is it possible that Dyment has an idealised, auratic attachment to the past? He mentions no more recent Brahms conductors, like Kubelik or Harnoncourt to name just two examples.
But overall, with the above criticisms in mind, this is a valuable addition to the fascinating history of great conductors of the past, and their changing styles of conducting and interpretation.
Since writing this review the sad death of Dyment was announced. His book on 'Toscanini in Britain' and the above reviewed book can certainly stand as a memorial to him.