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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68 (1876) [41:46]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 (1877) [38:54]
Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 (1883) [29:37]
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 (1884-85) [29:42]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1 and 3), NBC Symphony Orchestra (2), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter (4)
rec. May 1936 (3) May 1937 (1), Musikvereinsaal, Vienna; February 1940, NBC Studio 8-H, NYC (2): May 1934, EMI Abbey Road Studio No.1, London (4)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC512 [71:41 + 78:37]

Pristine Audio has been devoting quite a lot of its resources to the art of Bruno Walter. They have surveyed his acoustic recordings, for one thing – a labour-intensive but deeply valuable piece of restoration given its rather scanty appearance on previous restorations of acoustic material – and have also been investigating his much later Brahms recordings (see PASC 485 and 489 where Myra Hess and Erica Morini appear).

Now it’s time for a twofer of what Pristine calls his ‘first symphony cycle’. This is true in a sense, of course, though it’s not in the same sense as, say, Stokowski’s earlier Brahms Philadelphia cycle, given that Walter directs three different orchestras over the years 1934-40 and that one of the symphonies derives from a broadcast. The First and Third were recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, the First in May 1937 and the Third the previous year. The Second is quite a rare hearing for the NBC Symphony traversal of February 1940, a broadcast reading from Studio 8-H, whilst the Fourth is the very familiar BBC Symphony, the first of the set to be set down in May 1934 at Abbey Road.

The Vienna performances are the best examples of his Brahms here. The horns ring out resplendently in the First, with Rosť leading the fiddles and Buxbaum the cellos, the rich powerful sonority of the orchestra excellently captured. Malleable but not hard-hitting this is a rather restrained reading interpretatively, the orchestra’s succulent portamenti in the slow movement being an obvious high-point. Walter doesn’t take the repeat in No.3, but his tempi are good and once again the strings’ portamenti create a vivid sense of expressive richness and power. It’s a more vital reading the First, though equally well played.

Some digital reverberation has been added by Mark Obert-Thorn to the Second Symphony to counteract the notorious dryness of the NBC studio. This is a vibrant, resilient reading, much cleaner in respect of slides than the Vienna performances, Toscanini’s orchestra responding with dynamism to Walter’s lead. The finale in particular is very exciting and encourages strong audience applause. The Fourth Symphony was once included in the BBC’s 50th anniversary LP album along with performances by Fritz Busch, Toscanini, Boult and Elgar. Its approach to sliding is half way between the Vienna and NBC orchestras, but the Boult-trained orchestra was a finely responsive one, still led by Arthur Catterall. This is a passionate reading, full of depth in the slow movement and subject to metrical displacements in the finale though it’s far less persuasive than Toscanini’s own performance with the same orchestra a few years later.

This ad-hoc cycle is heard in fine sound, with surface noise retained to ensure a good spectrum response. There are numerous examples of Walter’s symphonic Brahms to be heard, not least the late Columbia Symphony cycle, but this (largely) pre-war cycle preserves his earliest, often far more fiery thoughts on the matter.

Jonathan Woolf



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