Beecham conducts Brahms
Beecham was not very enamoured of Brahms's music, and only the Second Symphony appeared with any regularity in his programmes. He did conduct the Third on occasion, but had little time for Nos. 1 and 4. No doubt it was the Second Symphony's particular qualities of warmth and lyricism which attracted him, since he was not very interested in matters relating to form and architecture. Certainly in this performance he responds to the score's romantic beauty rather than anything else, and structural anchors are not set very deep. The result is a somewhat superficial interpretation, which has many incidental felicities, but fails to satisfy—at the conclusion of the performance one is not aware of having been taken through a profound symphonic experience. I don't think it is necessary to go through the performance in detail. The first two movements are very pleasantly performed but have few strong features. Beecham plays the third movement rather like a tranquil pastoral interlude, and the finale, short on weight and strong accents, is rather whipped up at the end to provide an almost vulgar conclusion. There is no feeling here of symphonic argument triumphantly resolved, but just a grand-slam ending. The recording, completed in 1959, is in very good sound, with plenty of warmth and presence.
The Schicksalslied, or should I say Song of Destiny, since the work is sung in Denis Vaughan's English translation, was recorded in 1956. Here the stereo sound is a little less vivid, but good enough to capture a deeply-felt and eloquently expressed performance. What an enigma Beecham was, that he could on this occasion get to the heart of Brahms's serious Germanic inspiration in such revelatory fashion. The Academic Festival Overture, also in adequate 1956 sound, is very impressive too, quite tough, strongly built and with a magnificent climax.
So far as comparisons in the Symphony are concerned Karajan's new DG mid-price coupling of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, taken from the 1963–4 Berlin cycle. I find the Second Symphony less satisfying than Karajan's admirable 1955 EMI Studio performance with the Philharmonia, for although there are many similarities the later version has a more clotted texture, and accents are more smoothed out. The new DG Karajan version is attractively lyrical, but a little lack-lustre. Abbado's DG performance communicates more strongly, and only in the finale does this conductor's slightly objective approach result in a loss of momentum. Muti's Philips version is very warm and romantic, and probably the best of the newer issues. Klemperer's EMI Studio disc has rather grainy 1956 sound, but his reading has plenty of lyrical warmth, and brings out the Symphony's strength and character more than any other contender.'