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Brahms double HDTT7846

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Double Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op 102 (1887)
David Oistrakh (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra/Alceo Galliera
rec. 1956
Reviewed as download

I concede that Brahms’ ‘Double Concerto’, his last orchestral work, has never quite achieved the popularity of his biggest successes; even Clara Schumann declared, "I do not believe the concerto has any future. Nowhere has it the warmth and freshness which are so often to be found in his works.". However, I cannot agree and retain a great affection for it – and it would seem to be good enough to have attracted many celebrated musicians who have left us with some first-rate accounts. I have recently been reacquainting myself with some of those vintage recordings - in particular, the Kletzki-Ferras-Tortelier and the Walter-Francescatti-Fournier versions (the latter also on this label) and the personnel involved here also demand attention.

Of course, the usual caveat regarding HDTT issues must be observed: the discs and downloads are very short measure and the value of purchasing a fairly expensive remastering transcribed from open reel tapes into the “High Definition Tape Transfer” finished article has prompted debate. I can only say that in my experience, with very few exceptions, the process renders these venerable recordings superior to other formats and a reviewer on the label website attests to the superiority of this, “transferred from a 15ips 2-track tape”, over the EMI CD issue.

Good as it is, I find the other Fournier performance referred to above to be flawed, especially compared with my favourite Kletzki recording, so I was keen to hear this again and compare them. This recording was made in stereo by Walter Legge while EMI were still at the experimental stage with their stereo engineering. As a result, the sound-scape is quite narrow, although it opens up more in the third movement, and I by no means find this a barrier to enjoyment, such is the clarity and depth of the sound provided by HDTT. Fournier is on better form here than he was for Bruno Walter – for a start, his intonation is better – and Oistrakh is of course irreproachable, displaying his usual combination of sweetness, strength and technical acumen. The under-rated Galliera is more animated and alert than the aging Walter – pacing and phrasing are ideal – and to cap it all, the Philharmonia, already one of the great orchestras of its day, is more sonorous and characterful than the Columbia Symphony Orchestra – yet there is a slight, fierce edge to both their playing and the sound – well-balanced though it is – that I really like; it lends extra bite to music which some find too uniformly even-tempered.

The flowing melody in octaves of the Andante is especially soulfully played by the two soloists completely in harmony – in both sense of the word – yet the essentially classical, conservative and even retrospective nature of the music is never compromised by undue indulgence. The hobgoblin finale is spiritedly executed- not too fast, as per Brahms’ instruction, in order to preserve a faint sense of menace – which, again, militates against the music emerging as too ”comfortable”.

Oistrakh supposedly preferred this recording over the more celebrated 1969 version, also on EMI, with Rostropovich and Szell – and I can hear why; this takes its place alongside my own favourite Kletzki account - and there is, of course, also the wonderful 1960 recording with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, but that for me is slightly marred by a rushed Andante.

Ralph Moore

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