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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1862-76) [44:53]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [36:26]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [38:01]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) [38:43]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna 1956 (4), 1957 (1-3)
ELOQUENCE 482 4969 [81:29 + 76:54]

The introduction to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 has, in Kubelik’s hands the tension and yet suppleness of a bow being fired by an experienced archer. And more: the thrill the archer has in the activity. It’s bright, intense, exciting and has momentum. Even in the initially quieter second phrase the crescendos and diminuendos are brooding and gather grimly for the next onslaught. There’s some cost, in that the plaintive oboe near the close, perhaps a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth, is rather fast for poignancy, but all must move forward to the main Allegro. Its first and dominant theme is sweeping, authoritative and urgent. The second theme (tr. 1, 4:37) is more nebulous, but there’s plenty of humane woodwind detail before the clarinet solo, echoed by horn, that’s the kernel of its consolatory manner. It is the arm around the shoulder to the first theme’s purposeful stride. That latter mood returns with the biting clarity given to the obsessively recurring 3-quaver motif which powers forward the music to the close of the exposition. That motif gains a majestic tail in the development, so that, Kubelik convinced me, the motif becomes itself a thing of majesty. The strings sink down, wearied, into a murky pool from which emanates the famous double-bassoon entry (8:36), clear and exotic. But before long the 3-quaver motif becomes strident in a cataclysmic crescendo towards the recapitulation. In the latter the first theme is accompanied by the 3-quaver rhythm and there’s time to savour some expressive wind playing before the sheer pounding might of the blasting monotone horns. To the coda Kubelik brings a spacious, starry-eyed quality.

For comparison I took Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, also in 1956-7 (Warner Classics 4043382). His approach is more severe. Throughout, the timpani presence is weightier, something I missed in Kubelik’s recording. Klemperer’s introduction has more of an epic tension, while that plaintive oboe is gauntly angular. His Allegro is spikier, his second theme more relaxed but less warm than Kubelik’s. Klemperer’s 3-quaver motif is more lightly, yet still clearly, articulated. He brings more shivering mystery to the violins’ tremolando at the beginning of the development and his aching high violins descents later are more telling. His recapitulation seems more spartan and uncompromising, the second theme floating uneasily before the 3-quaver mantra dominates. His coda conveys exhaustion, with steelier atmosphere than Kubelik’s.

Kubelik presents the slow movement as an outpouring of feeling, gorgeously so at the end. When hearing the violin solo, which is the core of its closing section, delivered here with glorious sweetness without cloying, I was struck by how quintessentially Viennese it is in a work written, premiered and here played in Vienna. The violin, firstly in duet with the horn, reprises the second theme in a beatific, heart-on-sleeve manner. Initially the second theme, on oboe (tr. 2, 1:19) is consolatory empathy in response to the stresses that challenge the movement’s opening warmth. The whole movement parades the means to attest and define its serenity. Themes become brief expressions reacted to by others. The strings’ response (theme 3) to the oboe theme is more ardent and passionate. The oboe, in turn, is then more soulfully eloquent (theme 4) and is echoed by the clarinet. At 3:35 comes a bracing interlude with a descending phrase in the woodwind which, slightly modified, begins the third movement. At 4:45 a plateau is reached with a strings’ theme, which has a visionary quality (theme 5), and gives way at 5:17 to a firmly resolute statement (theme 6) which in turn becomes more lissom. It is only then that Brahms settles on returning the second theme to close the movement. In Klemperer’s slow movement the early dramatic moments seem more rhetorical, the tender ones clear-sighted, as is the smooth oboe second theme. The thematic journey is very clear yet everything is more appreciably placed than felt. His fourth theme is improvisatory in manner.

Kubelik has an attractive way with the scherzo (tr. 3), beginning it as a playful and blithe dance: you notice not only the sunny clarinet opening theme and the later first horn reflections on it but also the skipping, frolicsome rhythms of the strings. The livelier second theme (1:02) is, like an episode, there to make you appreciate all the more the return of the opening, but also acknowledge that it too has always had momentum. The trio, unusually, proves the power house of the movement and to it Kubelik brings a swiftly more determined, ardent manner. Klemperer’s scherzo is cooler, though still flowing; his trio has a harder edge and grows more frenzied in its repeat while his coda attains a lovely tranquillity. Kubelik’s scherzo is more serene and he reveals more cogently the knitting together of its orchestral elements; his coda settles for sweetness.

Kubelik’s Introduction to the finale (tr. 4) begins as mourning for a tragic event, real grief, not as with Klemperer a sense of dramatic rhetoric. Yet the strings’ pizzicato passages from Kubelik seem emotionally disengaged, as if a fool is playing to cheer up a mourner (think of Feste with Olivia in Twelfth Night). Klemperer gives these more edge in their stealth and then eruption. Thereafter Kubelik is all tension, in the following passage of the violins’ flurries of demisemiquavers, and consolation arrives in the famous horn solo, the first theme proper (2:42), loud and passionate as marked, magnificently focussed, as is the later duet of horns. Klemperer’s horns have a more heroic quality but in the recording are a little more recessed and thereby less striking. The next key moment is the arrival of the finale’s big tune, the second theme (4:58). To this Kubelik brings warmth and flow, while you notice the richness of the violas’ underpinning in its second phase. Where he differs from Klemperer, to advantage, is that he brings a jaunty bounce to the woodwind and horns’ repeat of the theme. The bright recording brings a frisson to the appearance of the head of the theme an octave higher in the strings and then its animated development. The third theme (6:47), by contrast, has a surface relaxation beneath which can soon be heard lurking concerns and then a yearning surfacing in the fourth theme (7:11) which the second oboe seeks to console. The strings whip up the agitation with a more emphatic fifth theme (7:39), a kind of bracing and ambitious version of the fourth, but when the oboe and flute repeat that more plaintively they are swept aside by resolutely thrusting triplet rhythms in the strings, producing enough alarm to require the return of the big tune now marked largamente. Kubelik makes this lilting with a touch a stateliness, which I prefer to Klemperer who for me here drags a little. The return of the tune’s animated development is presented with crispness and clarity by Kubelik, only when it reaches the descending cascades of the first and second violins followed by those of the lower strings (from 10:16) do I miss in their precision and neatness Klemperer’s sense of abandonment and excitement. Yet Kubelik’s return of the fourth theme in the first violins in upper register is magical and, while still maintaining rigour, his coda is as spruce as you could wish.

So far then, Kubelik has excelled in the lyrical, Klemperer in the dramatic aspects of Brahms’ symphonic writing. This would seem good news for Kubelik in the predominantly lyrical Symphony No. 2. He gives us a smooth, dreamy opening and when the violins rhapsodize on the opening theme (tr. 5, 1:08) they have a golden, sheeny tone which is nevertheless not overpowering. The power comes with the first forte entry of horns and trumpets at 1:30 with the motto heading the opening theme, a foretaste of the blazing affirmation of the horns in the development. This is important because it’s the conviction underpinning the overall serenity. The second theme, less diffuse and pervasive than the first, is also more precisely marked cantando (i.e. cantabile). First heard on violas and cellos (2:04), very much in mezzo-soprano register, Kubelik brings to it a rich, maternal, contemplative quality. There’s a rhetorical tail to this (3:00), a distinct enough entity to be called a third theme. Here’s a new focus on rhythmic vigour, trimly displayed by Kubelik, which is then retained as accompaniment in clarinets, horns and violas to a more forceful, ardent expression of the opening motto in the violins, cellos and double basses. When the second theme returns it is lavishly decorated by a gurgling accompaniment at first by the first flute and then by the first violins when the theme passes to flutes and oboes. Here I would have liked Kubelik to bring out the accompaniment a touch more. The development is notable for its more assertive treatment of the second part of the opening theme. The main impression left by Kubelik is one of stimulation and exhilaration that this initially benign theme can become so blazing. After this the recapitulation is like a grateful homecoming. With the fine balance of the interpretation and recording you can spot that the motto theme on the oboe is simultaneously matched by the strings’ rhapsodic expansion of it on the violas. However, I think the added first violins’ tracery at 7:43 might have been less shadowy. The coda is spotlit at first by a horn solo (11:37), a soliloquy which in its alarm and agitation brings out into the open the anxiety lurking beneath the serenity. It’s possibly a little smoothly underplayed here but the quite sudden balmy release into tranquillity with the ritardando from 12:01 is wonderfully achieved. Timing this movement at 15:02 to Kubelik’s 13:51, Klemperer’s presentation is more deliberate, less lilting, especially in the second theme. His strings’ rhapsodizing is creamy and the arrival of power blazes effectively but the progress of the third theme is stiffer. His firm, sonorous development lacks Kubelik’s freshness. The horn solo in the coda is pityingly eloquent but Kubelik’s magic in the ritardando is absent. Both recordings omit the exposition repeat.

For this largely sunny symphony Brahms writes quite a dark slow movement (tr. 6). Its opening cello theme is an imposingly grave, extended heartfelt melody. Kubelik gives it due solemnity while also allowing it to flow. A running quavers element, taken up and repeated, first by horn solo, crystallizes into a statement of hope from 2:10, which Kubelik displays as a transformation of mood, a shaft of sunlight filling the shadows, here quite fully given the strong forte of Kubelik’s realization. This leads to an idyllic interlude of skipping woodwind and then delicate strings pirouetting, which Kubelik reveals as the most intimate music heard in this symphony. The strings become rapturous and the vision fades, but now comes the movement’s second theme (3:35), gentle at first but soon full of sturdy resolution, enough not to be fazed by a growingly writhing accompaniment and from 4:36 its repeated opening motif is heard simultaneously with the movement’s opening theme which in this context has a calming effect. But it’s the first violins that effect the movement’s second and most striking transformation into a sunny landscape, Kubelik presenting this as seamless sleight of hand. A fiery tutti follows to confirm that peace is hard won. Timing the movement at 9:18 to Kubelik’s 8:45, Klemperer's Adagio non troppo pays less attention to the latter element, enough I feel to make it a touch too self-consciously analytical. The opening has a dignified gravity, less soulful than Kubelik’s. Klemperer’s statement of hope is firm but his interlude less idyllic than Kubelik’s. It has a relaxed objectivity with which the second theme also begins, but that soon grows exultantly fervent against the greater edge he brings to the writhing accompaniment than Kubelik. The transparency of his orchestral texture at the return of the opening theme is attractive but his handling of the first violins’ transformation lacks Kubelik’s polish.

The third movement ‘Intermezzo’ (tr. 7) is beautifully realized by Kubelik. From the principal theme of the opening oboe solo it’s dreamy, smooth, benign and contented, with the other woodwind and horn joining in happy companionship. The Vienna Phil strings supply a feathery, frisky first variation (1:04) which turns briefly into a vigorous tutti dance. In Variation 2 (2:07) the strings insist on repeating the opening of the theme, giving it a darker edge. In the third variation (2:35) we’re back to effervescent friskiness and dance dazzle which seems to me a little spikier this time though this is perhaps a matter of becoming more attuned to the rhythmic pointing. In the fourth and final variation (3:16) the strings present the theme as a growingly luxuriant waltz, near the end of which the violins and violas’ expansive sighs seem to allow Brahms to meet Tchaikovsky. Klemperer’s timing for this Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) is a little slower, 5:38 against Kubelik’s 4:56, but enough to make things more deliberate, beginning with the appoggiaturas in the main theme which Kubelik just throws off. What Klemperer does provide that you might like, however, is a more shadowy quality to the opening of Variation 1, a more sinister insistence in Variation 2 and a more philosophically- musing close. But I prefer Kubelik’s freshness and waltz lilt.

The finale (tr. 8) is Brahms at his most exuberant and Kubelik realizes this in full measure. Even his mysterious sotto voce opening has a companionable swing to it, barely disguising the likelihood that explosive heartiness is on the way, and it’s delivered at a virtuoso pace. The second theme (1:26), with strings largamente in low register, has the magniloquence of the big tune in the finale of Symphony 1 but is less self-conscious because less self-contained: instead it morphs into a supercharged display of athleticism. Kubelik seems to see the development as something of a daydream and then potentially a nightmare before a tranquillo section gradually wears down lurking anxieties. His recapitulation is gritty and intense, with the big tune a fourth higher and the 4-quaver clusters in the accompaniment clearer now at f rather than the earlier mf. His coda satisfyingly blends the movement’s elements of the visionary and high-spirited with particularly stunning contributions from the brass. Timing the movement at 9:05 to Kubelik’s 8:44, Klemperer is more orderly, neat and precisely articulated, whereas with Kubelik I feel he wants to be as unfettered and invigorating as possible. Klemperer brings a more sinister quality to the development, a more reverent tone to the first appearance of the big tune and makes it noticeably more fervent in the recapitulation, but overall doesn’t attain Kubelik’s jubilant freshness.

The emphatic as well as the lyrical characterizes Symphony 3 (CD2). Its opening rising 3 note motto on the wind signifies ‘Free but happy’ yet there’s also a stormy quality to the descending first theme which immediately follows in the violins, quoting Schumann’s Symphony 3. Kubelik brings glowing lyricism to all this, but also the taut emphasis of deliberation and conviction. It feels a bit slower than the Allegro con brio marking but works well in terms of orchestral balance. Klemperer, timing the first movement at 13:04 to Kubelik’s 13:56, conveys more brio but his wind accents in the final motto delivery in the opening passage (tr. 1, 0:25 in Kubelik) sound rather clumsy and drown out the strings. To the second theme, a gentle dance in A major (1:31), first heard on clarinet and bassoon, Kubelik brings the quiet intimacy of a family gathering. Unusually it’s in one bar phrases, 9 crotchets to a bar, continually varied in repetition, which gives it great flexibility. Yet in the development (6:50) it’s constricted to 6 crotchets and a forward sweep on violas, cellos and bassoons and becomes a kind of demonic waltz in C sharp minor, finally exorcised by the unfazed calm of a horn solo and then duet. Klemperer’s second theme is homely, but without Kubelik’s open air transparency. His minor version is murkily lugubrious, yet without Kubelik’s angst. Klemperer’s recapitulation, albeit rather grimly determined, doesn’t quite have Kubelik’s grit.

The special quality of the second movement Andante lies in its transformation of perspective as it evolves. Its opening melody on clarinets and bassoons is given by Kubelik a beauteous, flowing simplicity and grave serenity, which is to say a gravity in wishing to cherish the simplicity. Kubelik adopts quite a stately yet always flowing manner, arguably closer to Adagietto than the marked Andante, yet the music benefits from his concentration. Just first clarinet and bassoon introduce a second theme (tr. 2, 2:31), chant-like and with a sombreness containing its own kind of richness. This is accompanied by chords on the strings in a repeated pattern of crotchet-plus-minim groups. From 3:34 these chords appear on their own in virtually all instruments, spaced at wider intervals, like huge sighs across a vast expanse. The first theme returns on all the woodwind, now with a more outgoing nature, impelled by the rustling strings’ semiquavers’ accompaniment. The coda (6:50) finds the violins offering a searing, rhapsodic meditation on the opening theme followed by those sighs again, even more widely spaced and the theme surviving only as appreciative woodwind decorations. The passion evoked has become the feature of significance. It’s easy to say the playing for Kubelik is exquisite, yet there’s a unity of purpose and relationship between the instruments revealed that is compelling. It amounts to a spiritual dimension. Timing the movement at 8:17 to Kubelik’s 8:57, Klemperer is closer to Andante, but the comparative effect is of impressions streaming past. His first theme is attractively played but doesn’t glow like Kubelik’s. His second theme lacks mystery, though the later return of the first theme has a pleasing freshness. Kubelik’s coda has more wistful breadth, its climax naturally reached where Klemperer’s seems a touch rhetorically forced.

In Kubelik’s hands the third movement Poco Allegretto, toys with ambivalence of perspective. Its fascination lies in the question of how sorrowful the main theme is, first delivered mezza voce by cellos. From Kubelik it’s earnest, searching, yet the thrown-in 2 demisemiquavers at the end of the third phrase and decorative quintuplet 5 demisemiquaver cadential turn at the end of the fourth phrase introduce a preening element of display. The first violins’ repeat seems both less constrained and sadder, an acceptance that existence is sorrowful, a compact with which both first violins and cellos agree as they duet in freer meditation. When now first flute, first oboe (here less distinct) and first horn take up the theme the expression is starker, with a tinge of complaint. Now the central section seems to hurry in, marked dolce with the intention of calming things down through a dance in the woodwind, rather formal and mannered from Kubelik, yet also a freshening up with a smoother strings’ expansion that rapidly brings a yearning sigh to a head and, in the repeat, the softest of sighs which is even more touching. The opening theme returns on solo horn with solo oboe doing the repeat and with Kubelik the expression is now more open, as if sayimg ‘All right, this is a serious song, but what a joy to sing it!’. Similarly, I feel that the first violins and cellos enjoy its final statement, yet then comes a huge, full orchestra sigh. In comparison with Kubelik, Klemperer is cultivated yet emotionally relatively disengaged, determined to be more philosophical than sorrowful. The first violins’ initial statement of the theme languishes decoratively, though they rather smudge the demisemiquavers. His central section dance has the woodwind stepping carefully more comically offset by the cello bass entries being half a beat behind. The strings’ expansion is more musing, dreamy, less climactic. The horn and oboe contributions are cooler: you could say placid. Klemperer’s climax is reserved for the closing sigh.

Kubelik’s opening to the finale (tr. 4) is a grimly purposeful progression with the sotto voce strings bringing an element of mystery. At 0:31 comes the second theme, a chant summoned by 2 chords from the trombones. Their third summons is a snarl and the rest of the orchestra respond with a splenetic fragment of the opening theme followed by part of its full version. At 1:29 comes a different response, the third theme first heard on cellos and horns, one of heroic resilience with a plentiful and flowing triplet rhythm, a foretaste of Elgar. This leads into a fourth theme at 2:03 on violins and flutes stating ‘We stand our ground!’. The storm passes and the opening theme assumes a smoother, more contemplative nature because it’s now in the woodwind. The strings are happy to echo their decorative descents as the theme is diffused, but then introduce their own harsh descents and the development is transfigured by a harsh version of the chords and chant. Yet again contemplation wins out, with the opening theme appearing now on muted cellos. The final moment of the transformations Kubelik has scrupulously charted comes with the tweaking of this theme at 7:06 into F major, in the oboes’ duet joined by flutes, after which Kubelik reveals some lovely instrumental details, such as the rapturous solo at 7:20 from the third horn. The 2 chord and chant grouping is now in beatific mode against rustling semiquavers in violins and violas before their closing tremolo allusion in to the Schumann quotation from the work’s start. Klemperer’s finale, timing at 9:14 to Kubelik’s 8:53, is just that touch stiffer, though his calm woodwind version of the opening theme has a pleasing transparency. Kubelik’s development is crisper. Klemperer does bring more edge to his recapitulation, but Kubelik throughout revels in the exhilaration of a challenge. In Klemperer the appearance of the theme in the major is less magical than in Kubelik, because the oboes don’t emerge from the orchestral texture as well. His closing chant has splendid dignity, but I prefer Kubelik’s greater warmth and glow.

In the first movement of Symphony 4 Kubelik stresses the flow, yet reflectiveness, of the opening theme from the outset. This is a work in which parts of themes are mulled over; with the opening theme it’s a minim tied to a quaver plus a throwaway descent of 3 further quavers, first heard from tr.5, 0:13, all presented quite lightly. The second theme, or rather phase (1:19) is a marcato fanfare, a wake-up call from this reverie, to which the cellos and horns respond with a theme which Kubelik presents as serious yet resolute, but elements of the fanfare material accompany it and the fanfare itself thereafter reasserts itself more vigorously. The contrast to this is a third phase of material which is more mood than melody music. This begins with a rapturous descent from high violins (2:15), continues with mellow wanderings and carefree descents in the first horn and woodwind and concludes with, at first, the gentlest, then the grandest, versions of the fanfare. Here for a spell the anxiety and mystery which pervades much of the movement is banished and Kubelik allows us to relish it. The development brings a gentle and then less gentle, writhing examination of the opening theme, in turn contemplative and blasting fanfares. Yet what sticks in the mind is the sequence of the minim plus-4-quavers unit of the opening theme which now, in 16 appearances, alternates between strings and woodwind. From Kubelik this is like enjoying glimmering shadows in a woodland glen before a slow, intensely contemplative version of the opening theme makes a disguised start to the recapitulation in which Kubelik’s cellos’ and now one horn theme is more ardent. But there’s more transformation to close: a coda (10:07), in which Kubelik shows us the opening theme at its most assertive, with a burning defiance that couldn’t have been guessed at its first hearing, presented with clarity yet still an element of objectivity. Klemperer, timing the movement at 12:25 to Kubelik’s 11:19, takes more note of the latter element of Brahms’ marking Allegro non troppo. Paradoxically this gives more urgency to its progression as Klemperer makes the lower strings’ accompaniment to the theme more jagged, so from the outset there’s a troubled hinterland to the lyricism. Those units I mentioned earlier with Klemperer don’t have thrown- away quavers because they are shadowed by the quavers of the lower strings’ accompaniment. This sets the tone for an account that’s more dogged and up-front tragic. Klemperer’s second theme/phase is more warlike, his third more musing, less serene than Kubelik’s. Klemperer’s 16 units inhabit a more dreamlike state (tragedy is reality, this isn’t), yet in his more frenzied coda the discipline threatens to go off the rails. He sacrifices much of Kubelik’s beauty and lightness for more character. For an appreciation of the work’s range of perspective you need both performances.

I’d like to feel, and maybe Kubelik does, that the significance of the slow movement lies not in the opening horn fanfare motif but in the first theme which develops from it, softly and smoothly on the clarinets, a theme which, as Kubelik shows, becomes more yearning as it progresses. But the most memorable and gorgeous theme in the symphony is this movement’s second, first appearing on the cellos (tr. 6, 3:46), a theme whose origin has been traced to Bach’s Cantata 149. In this symphony, however, this theme is created by a gradual process of variation from the opening theme, via a refined version in gestures of comfort by the violins (2:46) and a spiky woodwind assertion (3:21). Kubelik shows that this theme holds in balance gravity and humanity, the latter emphasised by the first violins’ accompaniment, fulsomely sympathetic and emotive without ever being allowed to obtrude. Now the violas return with the opening theme, with a shower of lovely arabesques by flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. It takes on a sterner cast, decked out with contrapuntal rigour so we know we’ve reached the development. Kubelik plays this firmly, but not dramatically, being more interested in the return of the second theme now luxuriantly scored for strings in 8 parts. There’s more warmth now without detriment to the fundamental seriousness and, as the dynamic quietens, the feeling of a heartrending sigh before a brief, shining proclamation which I think Kubelik is right to understate a touch as this isn’t triumphalism. It can’t be, when the coda (9:40) brings a chillier atmosphere, offset by an eloquent clarinet but making the final, quite severe statement of the opening theme seem appropriate. Timing at 10:18 to Kubelik’s 11:07, Klemperer takes less account of the latter element of Brahms’ Andante moderato marking which does push forward the first theme a touch insistently. I think Kubelik is right to give it more meditative space. However, Klemperer does deliver the first appearance of the second theme with more beauty, if a little less gravity, and still with the violins’ accompaniment finely poised, so it has a blend of joy and sadness. His violas’ return to the opening theme and woodwind arabesques are cooler, his development neat but very objective. His return to the second theme is warm, less grave, its quietening a mite less affecting than Kubelik’s, while he makes the repeat rather more grandiose. He also brings more optimistic colour to the coda’s return to the opening fanfare.

The third movement Scherzo is the only one found in Brahms’ symphonies. Kubelik brings to it more a love of precision than explosion, and I feel he’s happier with the nonchalance of the grazioso second theme on the violins (tr. 7, 0:53) for the giocoso opening and dominant material comes across as a hefty, slap-on-the-back variety. Brahms enjoys occasionally presenting the descending first theme in ascending form as a fast, major mode preparation for the passacaglia finale’s minor mode ascending theme and Kubelik makes this clear to appreciate. The exchange of chords between strings and woodwind, so memorable in the first movement here becomes knockabout at an increasingly rapid rate. Slightly slower, a soft, dreamy, fragmentary variant of the opening theme on horns and bassoons (3:08) serves as a kind of Trio, immediately spruced up as an energetic, loud tutti. Even the blithe second theme gets the martial treatment until the ‘Trio’ theme is triumphantly blasted by horns and trumpets. But in general terms, I wonder is Kubelik perhaps a touch too polite? Klemperer confirmed my view. His heartiness is earthier, racier. He gets more humour out of the exchange of chords. He enjoys making more of the extreme contrasts of dynamic, although I feel thereby his second theme is overly demure and prefer Kubelik’s open-air freshness. Klemperer’s ‘Trio’ is also less balmy, but were the Scherzo a prize fight Klemperer would win as he throws the heavier punches.

In the passacaglia finale Brahms adapts an 8-note theme from the final chorus of Bach’s Cantata 150 and treats it to 30 variations and a coda, creating a marvel of contrasting expression, mood and tone. Kubelik gives us the theme stark and direct. Variation 1 (tr. 8, 0:17) is quieter but with menacing offbeat drumbeats. Variation 2 (0:33) brings the first expansion of the theme flowing in the woodwind, while Variation 3 (0:48) is a choleric, abrupt version in the wind. By Variation 4 (1:02) the disguise of the theme, in deep-grained tone in Kubelik’s violins, is sufficient for this to sound like a second theme and this is developed in turn in the flowing manner of Variation 5 (1:17), the writhing of Variation 6 (1:30), the rhetorical fashion of Variation 7 (1:44), the vigour of the violins’ semiquaver runs in Variation 8 (1:58) and finally the frenzy of Variation 9 (2:12). Suddenly all’s at rest in the calm of Variation 10 (2:28) and Brahms’ familiar symphonic alternation of strings and woodwind chords. There are enough variations for you to pick favourites. One of mine is Variation 11 (2:47) for its delicate, Schumann-like scoring which at first offsets violins and flutes with violas and cellos. The unforgettable variation, however, is No. 12 (3:06), a flute solo of eloquent sorrow from Kubelik here. Still quite pacy, this adds to its poignancy, like a stream of flowing, yet also beautiful, tears. E minor turns to E major for the consolation of Variations 13 to 15, the most touching of which is the warm, funereal eulogy provided by Kubelik’s trombones in Variation 14 (4:24). Come Variation 16 (5:42) and we’re back to the uncompromising opening theme but this time savaged half way through by descending strings. In Variation 17 (5:55) beyond the tremolando strings atmospherics, Kubelik allows you to detect echoes in the woodwind of the first theme of the first movement. These echoes can be found even more clearly as the violins brutally chase cellos and double basses at the beginning of Variation 30 (8:31). Meanwhile, there are a couple more examples of mood swings: Variation 21 (6:43) has rather petulant demisemiquaver rising sweeps in violins and flutes offsetting horns ff with the theme, whereas Variation 22 (6:54) has feathery, Mendelssohn-like presentation in triplets by strings and woodwind. Kubelik brings a sudden impatience and urgency to Variation 30 which closes with, as marked, a portentous, yet only slight slowing to the faster coda (8:49). To this Kubelik brings fine clarity but I felt it was slightly wanting in edge, especially the version of the theme on the trombones from 9:10 which is more steady than impulsive.

Klemperer’s opening to this finale has a sonorous and gloomy mindset, without Kubelik’s sense of exploration; yet Klemperer’s Variation 3 is less neat but more forceful. In Variation 4 he stresses the largamente aspect where Kubelik gives more attention to the ben marcato, though I prefer the slimmer, more sinewy resilience that Kubelik thereby achieves. Klemperer opts for less flow but more sense of lamentation. His violins’ semiquaver runs in Variation 8 are less energetic, which makes for a greater contrast in the frenzy of Variation 9. There’s an hallucinatory quality to his alternating strings and woodwind chords in Variation 10 which is more disturbing than Kubelik’s balmy manner, but his Variation 11 lacks Kubelik’s delicacy, as does his Variation 22. Klemperer’s flute soliloquy of Variation 12 conveys less beauty but more grief than Kubelik, while Klemperer’s Variation 13 is less assured yet more tender in its fragility than Kubelik’s ethereal woodwind euphony. But I prefer the latter’s warmer trombones in Variation 14 to Klemperer’s rather stolid dignity. Klemperer’s demisemiquaver flourishes in Variation 21 seem relatively neutral alongside Kubelik’s greater flair but the entrance of his horns in Variation 23 (7:05 in Kubelik) is more exciting while he achieves more electricity in the clash between ff brass and timpani and offbeat accents from strings and wind than does Kubelik in Variation 24 (7:17), albeit Kubelik is still bitingly dramatic and he does bring a crisper formality than Klemperer to the contest between upper and lower strings in Variation 30. Nevertheless, Klemperer’s coda is more gripping than Kubelik’s, with his trombones’ ascents commanding more attention.

Kubelik’s Brahms is accessible and attractive, sometimes outclassing Klemperer’s. The sensitivity of Kubelik’s interpretation and the quality of the Vienna Phil’s playing are assets; if the brightly lit strings might be a deterrent, check out the samples on the Presto website.

Michael Greenhalgh



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