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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884) [41:21]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861, orch. Edmund Rubbra) [28:47]
Cleveland Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. July 1992, Severance Hall, Cleveland
Presto CD
DECCA 436 853-2 [70:30]

This Presto CD is another exact replica of a CD - this time from Decca - which first saw light of day in 1994. The renowned Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy recorded all four Brahms symphonies and associated orchestral works including a rare but intriguing work which is on this disc. Whilst, as the late Bob Briggs asserted, “… as a pianist Ashkenazy has few peers”, but [for Bob] “as a conductor, he lacks the very strengths that, as a pianist, he displays in every note he plays”. I would question this assertion and I cite the very impressive Sibelius Decca box featuring the Philharmonia. In the site’s review of that set Rob Barnett wrote “few sets are as consistently strong as this one”. To my mind those very qualities are present here in this very fine Brahms Fourth Symphony, a work I’ve known and loved for about half a century. In that time I have enjoyed numerous recordings, including this CD which I acquired in a sale at Oxford City Libraries about fifteen years ago.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 is a favourite work which, for me, has lots of family associations. My late father was extremely fond of it. It’s so extraordinary and individual that it tends to be reserved for as a special for occasional airings. The last time I devoted serious listening to it was when I auditioned Sir Adrian Boult’s live Royal Albert Hall recording from 1975 with the BBCSO on ICA Classics (review). This, I felt was superior even to Boult’s excellent studio recording from slightly earlier with the LPO in a superb EMI Classics box From Bach to Wagner.

Ashkenazy, in the present case, has the Cleveland Orchestra who made memorable recordings of Brahms in the 1960s with George Szell on Sony, a set praised by Rob Barnett (review). I also enjoyed it although it is not, I think, in the Toscanini, Furtwängler or Walter class. It is also not the equal of the excellent recording of the VPO with Carlos Kleiber (DG) referred to in Dominy Clements’ generally positive review of Giulini’s Chicago cycle (Warners GROC). Thus Ashkenazy has considerable competition and faces potential competition at the hands of collectors who already have a few preferences.

Ashkenazy, the Clevelanders and the Decca engineers serve up an extremely impressive recording of this remarkable work. Orchestra and conductor adopt an ideal pace for the first movement, with the drums enforcing a feeling of foreboding. The elegiac Andante moderato avoids any sentimentality yet one cannot fail to be moved by the last bars. As always in great performances, the Allegro giocoso seems to be alive with sanguine euphoric spirit as if defying an imminent catastrophe. I place a proviso on ‘catastrophe’ as I’ve never quite seen it that way. Brahms’ inventive use of a passacaglia theme leads to one of the most emotional final movements in symphonic literature and I detect some defiance in the brass rather than submission. I will grant that the movement does not end in triumph but a feeling of frustration and disillusionment is certainly there.

This CD has a substantial and rather imaginative pairing in the shape of Rubbra’s slightly eccentric orchestration of the Handel Variations. He made this in 1938 and as Rubbra’s op. 47, it nestles between the second and the third symphonies. The Variations manage to sound very different from Brahms. In his review of the Brahms-Rubbra, in harness with Brahms’ two piano concertos (Ashkenazy/Haitink: Double Decca), Christopher Howell makes the point that whilst Schoenberg’s more celebrated arrangement of the Piano Quintet sounds rather like a post-Brahmsian modernist having fun at the master’s expense, Rubbra, in his quietly original way, actually gets further away from his source and teaches us a good deal about himself and Brahms. Ashkenazy, may not previously have known Rubbra’s work but he certainly knew Brahms’ Handel Variations; I have it in a recording on CD35 of Ashkenazy’s “Artist’s Choice, Solo and Chamber Recordings” box, a real treasure of a collection, on Decca. There is also the Rubbra orchestral version with the NBC under a great Brahms conductor, Arturo Toscanini, on YouTube and on Dell’Arte DA9020. The listener may be taken back at the beginning by what sounds like a close cousin to Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark’s march. Rubbra then leads us through variations that seem a little remote from Brahms. Nevertheless the Hamburg composer’s presence is still there. The Brahms-Rubbra is worth bearing in mind as an excellent candidate to quiz classical lovers in “Guess the composer?” I found the work intriguing and highly enjoyable; it makes for a substantial bonus as opposed to the example set for Carlos Kleiber whose DG CD contains Brahms 4 alone.

The sound throughout both the Symphony and the Variations is of Decca’s finest digital quality. There are brief but concise notes by Jan Smaczny who draws out connections in the Variations between Brahms and his admirer Edward Elgar.

Presto have done lovers of the Symphony a great service in making Ashkenazy’s very satisfactory and well-played recording available again. It’s a version I’ve always held in high regard and revisiting it now reinforces its first class qualities. There should always be room for another Brahms 4.
David R Dunsmore

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