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Brahms sys 4861815
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68 (1855-76) [45:06]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 (1877) [37:06]
Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 (1883) [31:43]
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 (1884-85) [40:06]
Tragic Overture in D minor, Op.81 (1880) [12:36]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
rec. 11/1961 (Op.68), 5/1961 (Op.73), 4 and 5/1962 (Opp. 81 and 90), 6/1965 (Op. 98),
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 1815 [3 CDs: 166:47]

At last, one of the great Brahms cycles gets an official release in nicely restored sound. William Steinberg was a highly regarded conductor who made Pittsburgh his base for decades, while still maintaining his European career and guest conducting major orchestras worldwide. He helped found the Israel Philharmonic (as the Palestine Philharmonic initially), and served as an assistant to Toscanini when that famed maestro was creating the NBC Symphony in New York in the 1930s. Toscanini was a key influence, but while Toscanini preached a gospel of inspired literalism while tinkering with scores right and left, Steinberg was often truer to the score than his mentor. Those who dislike low interpretive profiles sometimes dismiss Steinberg as a dutiful kapellmeister, but the level of lucid inspiration in his work is quite high, making him a favorite of connoisseurs.

After a series of recordings made for the American Capitol label in the 1950s, Steinberg grew dissatisfied with the sound quality of Capitol's LPs. He and the Pittsburgh Symphony made a few recordings for Everest, evidently intrigued by the bold sound of their records, made from masters recorded on 35-millimeter film. Everest did not last long, but when they folded, producer Robert Fine purchased their equipment for use on Mercury recordings, for which he had achieved fame as producer. Pop music producer Enoch Light was looking at this time to start a classical venture, so he approached Fine and asked if he would be interested in using the 35 mm film equipment for the series, and thus Command Classics was born. (Incidentally, Fine did end up using the film recording method for a number of his Mercury productions of the early 1960s as well.)

With Enoch Light as executive producer, Robert Fine as producer, and Light's daughter Julie Klages as sound engineer, the team signed Steinberg and the PSO to launch the project. One of the first decisions made was to leave the Syria Mosque, where Capitol had long recorded the PSO in blowsy sound, for a new venue: the Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Pittsburgh. The first recording was of Brahms 2nd in May of 1961, and according to the original release notes (included in small print in the booklet here), Steinberg immediately perked up after the first playback, excited by the clarity and warmth of the sound. Before the series of recordings wound down, full cycles of Beethoven and Brahms, as well as selected major works by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Bruckner were recorded as well. The LPs were highly regarded at the time by many, though with the caveat that these were recordings very definitely in the American style of the time: closely miked and very bright, occasionally risking overloading channels into distortion. Rather like the Mercury recordings, the Command house sound was bright, verging on harshness, as opposed to the still close but mellower RCA sound.

After Enoch Light decided to move on, the Command Classics masters were sold to ABC Classics, which reissued many of them, albeit sometimes on cheaper vinyl, harming the sound. Meanwhile, the original untouched film masters began deteriorating. When they became the property of MCA in the 1980s, they were released in a bargain series that, unfortunately, showed every sign of being a direct transfer to digital of the LP-equalized masters, not the original pre-equalization tapes. Thus, with the bass rolled off and the treble boosted, they became unpleasantly harsh on CD. Additionally, somehow the channels got flipped in the third and fourth movements of the Second Symphony, a highly disconcerting layout for headphone listeners in particular. These channel issues combined with the harshness of sound kept the cycle from getting the nods it should have.

Then, for many years, there was no official release available at all, leading some historical labels to take a shot at remastering from LPs or reel-to-reel tapes to make it available. Somewhere along the way, the original Command Classics recordings became property of Deutsche Grammophon, who has finally begun restoring them to the catalog, as well as to their original lustrous sound. The booklet for this release does not offer any detail about the restoration process for this set. When DG issued Steinberg's Command Beethoven cycle, they had to resort to dubbing part of the Ninth Symphony from a mint-condition LP due to the deterioration of the original tapes. Nothing here sounds like an LP dub, so they were either able to work with the original tapes, or perhaps a fine reel-to-reel copy. The range is balanced, with a restored bass and tamed treble, immediately vaulting it past the MCA release, also with an increase of clarity and presence. If you like the recording style, this has been restored to be a fine example of it.

The performances are traditional, but with compelling momentum. Especially of note is the interpretive balance. Toscanini (RCA/Sony) and George Szell (Columbia/Sony) could get a little rigid and hectoring in Brahms, while at the other extreme, Nikolaus Harnoncourt's cycle in the 1990s (Teldec/Warner) was lyrical to the point of vitiating the music's vitality. Steinberg had a marvelous touch for balancing both. His Brahms sings far more than Toscanini, Szell, Klemperer, or Horenstein, yet it can red-bloodedly punch with force when necessary.

The pick of the cycle is a marvelous Symphony No.2. His overall pacing is noticeably faster than average, finding wit in more places than most. Steinberg also reminds us that the finale is marked 'allegro con spirito,' not the 'allegro non spirito' that we get from Bernstein (Sony and DG), Böhm (DG), or Giulini (twice on DG), grandly (and wrongheadedly) autumnal though they are. Yet, where fast - such as the third movement, which is the swiftest of any performance I've heard - Steinberg knows where to relax to make a transition without rigidity. And he can still take a broad enough view of the slow movement to make full impact.

The Third is nearly as good. It is a notoriously tricky work to bring off, but Steinberg's range again helps him. Where so many others get caught up in the autumnal mists of the first movement, Steinberg remembers that the composer marked the movement 'allegro con brio,' 'fast with vigor.' His forward momentum keeps the work alive and alert, able to explore passing shadows without bogging down into a trudge. In terms of drive, Szell is at his formidable best in that opening movement, and Steinberg cannot match Bruno Walter's heart-tugging third movement. That being said, it is nonetheless a top-tier performance that yields only to those two gems.

Steinberg's First is only a notch lower. Perhaps the remarkable Horenstein/London Symphony recording from around the same time (Chesky) cuts even more clearly through the density of Brahms' orchestration, but its fastidiousness doesn't offer as much warmth as Steinberg. Ultimately, my favorites in this work are performances that risk a bit more in the run for glory in the finale, such as Bruno Walter's mono New York Philharmonic recording (available in the magnificent Sony complete recordings box set), Bernstein's stereo Columbia recording (now on Sony), or Peter Maag's spontaneous approach caught on the wing in a live recording with the Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Torino in 1976 (Arts Archives).

The Symphony No.4 receives a solid performance in the tradition that treats this imposing symphony as a grand edifice. I prefer a bit more propulsive drive, as in Günter Wand's NDR Symphony recording (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/EMI), but Steinberg's remains at a high level of accomplishment. It doesn't push to the brink in the manner of Furtwängler (EMI), holding its power sternly in reserve. A taut performance of the Tragic Overture rounds out the set.

While I am delighted to hear the number of modern performances of Brahms which have reawakened an appreciation for this composer's vitality (think Chailly on Decca or Ticciati on Linn), it is illuminating to hear someone like Steinberg who knew how to deliver the old tradition with energy and focus, before the tradition devolved into meaningless rote (Mehta on Sony, Muti on Philips). The elusive lure of great music is that the ideal performance, if it could ever actually be reached, would perfectly balance the warmth and insight of early to mid-twentieth century conductors with the historical knowledge and stylistic insight of modern conductors. Happily, for listeners like me, the search will never end; but this Steinberg set is an important way station on the journey.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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