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Brahms double HDTT3131

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op. 102 (1887) [33:05]
Zino Francescatti (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello)
The Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 1960
Reviewed as download

You could hardly assemble a more distinguished roster of artists to play one of Brahms’ tautest, cleverest and most melodious of works than we have here and this is many people’s favourite recording of the Double Concerto. However, in comparison with my own preferred recording by Kletzki with Ferras and Tortelier, despite it being a tad faster - and Heifetz and Piatigorsky, in their 1960 recording, are even fleeter at just 29 minutes, with a rushed Andante - I find it to be a little heavy-footed. The aged Walter is a little leaden and his beat seems to hold his soloists back; furthermore, both soloists are somewhat lacking in terms of expressiveness in phrasing and dynamics and do not sound as tonally well-matched as Ferras and Tortelier. I am a fan of both Francescatti and Fournier but find that the Kletzki pair gel better.

There is also the question of the recording acoustic. The CfP/Testament recording has a far warmer, broader, more natural quality whereas the solo instruments here are recorded with startling clarity and proximity and have emerged as all the more prominent in this new remastering from HDTT as they were obviously very closely miked - and for the violin to sound tolerable some distance between the player and the audience's ears is desirable if the listener is not to share the soloist’s perspective of picking up on every scrape and creak.

The playing is often excellent but far from flawless. A true dialogue between the protagonists is sustained, with the orchestra being more of an audience – but that conversation is distinctly more relaxed than that between Ferras and Tortelier; the first movement is more a joint reminiscence of old friends while jogging along than a sharp exchange of ideas in heated debate. Despite their tonal warmth and homogeneity when duetting in the Andante, I find their clipping of phrases and lack of repose vitiates the poetry of that movement. I do appreciate that the tempo marking isn’t Adagio but surely a smidgin more breath between phrases and just a hint of lingering over the beautiful melody would not go amiss; Ferras and Tortelier take rather more time over it and are much more moving. The demonic finale immediately lacks drive and attack and never really gets going - and surprisingly there a few intonation problems along the way – some really quite bad, especially around 5:40, compounded by audible pre-echo on the master tape. I would go so far as to say that the performance falls apart for a while – at least until about three minutes before the end, when things pick up and the performers inject considerably more tension into proceedings.

The disc is of course rather short measure, offering only the one brief work. If this sounds too negative an assessment, I can only resort to that hoary old adage about the best being the enemy of the good.

Ralph Moore


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