Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4; Academic Festival Overture

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Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4; Academic Festival Overture

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 4
  • Variations on a Theme by Haydn, 'St Antoni Chorale
  • Academic Festival Overture

The principal attraction of this novel and in many ways satisfying set of Brahms symphonies is that it presents a rare opportunity to sample the lean sonorities that Brahms himself would have experienced with orchestras in Karlsruhe and, most especially, Meiningen. There are fewer than 50 instruments involved, including ‘Vienna’ horns (with longer lengths of tubing than on modern French horns), rotary valve trumpets and antiphonally divided violin desks. More significant still is Sir Charles Mackerras’s bold decision to incorporate into his performances interpretative suggestions dictated by Fritz Steinbach, including – and here I quote Sir Charles himself – “almost violent changes of tempo that are not marked by Brahms”. Steinbach was a contemporary of Brahms and attentive listeners will note relatively swift tempos, nineteenth-century-style portamentos, brazen brass textures, exciting to-ings and fro-ings between first and second violins, meticulously shaped phrasing and much expressive rubato. Those collectors schooled in the interpretative manners of, say, Furtwangler, Weingartner, Toscanini, Mengelberg, Walter and others will likely respond with a hearty “what’s new?” (not without some justification), but others should be duly refreshed by what they hear.
As the First Symphony is the most arresting, and certainly the most interesting, performance of the four, I thought it warranted the closest analysis. The first movement starts briskly and assertively, although I should have liked a more audible contra-bassoon in the opening Un poco sostenuto (Eschenbach’s Houston recording scores heavily in that respect). The cello line is lovingly drawn (at 2'10'' and 4'00'' into the main Allegro), as is the dialogue between horn and clarinet at 4'40'' and I liked the growling contra-bassoon-with-double-basses at 10'32'', though there is an overbearing ritardando at 11'17''. In truth, it is impossible to tell which rubato is Steinbach’s, and which Mackerras’s own; so, bearing in mind Sir Charles’s habitual unaffectedness as an interpreter, I am assuming that the more striking gestures originate from Steinbach’s suggestions.
Portamento tenderizes the revised slow movement (try from, say, 0'50'' in), and propulsive bass pizzicatos animate the third (with scurrying lower-string triplets in the trio section). Divided violins 2'04'' into the finale dart left to right, just prior to the big horn melody. Trombones are especially sombre (and superbly controlled) at 3'41''; Mackerras lingers on the initial upbeat of the big string melody (at 4'46''), and accelerates thereafter rather in the manner of Furtwangler (although nowhere near as dramatically), with knife-edged string exchanges at around 6'08''. There is also some very sensitive rubato at the lightening key-change at 8'55'' and the broadened, brass-topped chorale theme that crowns the coda really is truly triumphant (say, at 15'17''). By way of a bonus, Mackerras offers us a fascinating reconstruction of the original slow movement, music that parades familiar material in an unfamiliar order and which, as Sir Charles himself suggests, will seem “almost like a nightmare to someone who knows the [original] movement well”. Certain linking passages are different, though the sum effect approximates, in mood and melody if not in structure, that of the final revision.
Mackerras plays all first-movement repeats (not an option that Brahms himself would necessarily have countenanced), which of course extends the Second Symphony’s opening movement to just a few seconds short of 20 minutes. Here the mood is genial and lyrical rather than mellow and dramatic. At the very beginning of the symphony, horns, bassoons and higher woodwind phrase very much ‘by the book’ (in groups of three or four notes), quite unlike the seamless stream of melody favoured by most other conductors. Again, cellos are especially distinctive, trumpets too – but the strings at 10'38'' are hardly forte marcato and some of the timpani writing (I am thinking specifically of the forte passage at 11'38'' and fortissimo at 11'55'') is relatively underprojected. Portamento is a prominent feature of the slow movement, the Allegretto grazioso’s trio is delightfully balletic (it has an almost Tchaikovskian sparkle) and the zestful finale is capped by very prominent brass.
Brass are again to the fore in the first movement of the Third Symphony, though they occasionally swamp the strings. Mackerras’s tempo is fairly swift and although properly con brio sounds rushed. So do parts of the finale, but the two middle movements come off very well, especially the second, where the modest string bands alternate effectively with fluid winds. The Fourth Symphony is in many respects the most straightforward performance of the four, though textural illumination is as much in evidence here as elsewhere – especially in the second movement, where solo violas (scaled down as per Steinbach’s direction) make for some intimate exchanges at 5'31''. The Scherzo is bracing, the finale forthright (tempo relations between individual variations sound convincing), and the balance of forces seems to me better judged than in the Third Symphony.
A fourth CD includes an absorbing conversation between Sir Charles and Alyn Shipton where the whole project is discussed and various opinions offered, including comments relating to other conductors, notably Toscanini and Furtwangler. Still, I think that it is important to offer at least one alternative viewpoint and I can think of no better candidate for ‘friendly opposition’ than Felix Weingartner, whose superb 78rpm Brahms cycle is currently available in EMI’s mid-price References series. Sir Charles rightfully reminds us that Hans von Bulow would almost certainly have conducted Brahms with a good deal of Wagnerian flexibility, but Weingartner – referring to von Bulow’s Beethoven – was troubled by precisely the kind of tempo fluctuations and phrasing that one presumes Steinbach annotated. Furthermore, when Brahms actually heard Weingartner conduct his Second Symphony, he praised the way the piece was “mirrored” in Weingartner’s head and even went so far as to say that he had never heard a more beautifully played performance. Ernest Newman described Weingartner’s readings as “lean, taut, sinewy, sparing of gesture [and] contemptuous of mere peacoquetry”, and these qualities are consistently borne out by Weingartner’s EMI cycle. I leave the reader to decide whether Mackerras’s reportage of Steinbach is more convincing than Weingartner’s first-hand response to the notes themselves, and whether what we now term as a chamber orchestra can really do justice to what are, after all, big-boned, richly-textured romantic symphonies. The Telarc set sounds, at times, like augmented chamber music, which is fine in some places (particularly the slow movements, and the third movements of the First and Second Symphonies) but elsewhere tends to compromise the grandeur of Brahms’s structures.
Fill-ups on the Telarc recording include, in addition to the First Symphony reconstruction, energetic performances of the Haydn Variations and Academic Festival Overture. It is interesting to play through this set then return to selected performances from an earlier era. As it happens, Mackerras’s portamentos are much less marked than on most pre-war recordings of the symphonies, and his “almost violent” speed changes are far less extreme than, say, Furtwangler’s or Mengelberg’s. Ultimately, one wonders whether it is actually possible to approximate the mood, pace, ethos, musical tensions and interpretative priorities of a world that was so utterly different from our own, but the experiment was worth making and the results are often stimulating. Mackerras and his players have much to teach us about Brahms’s symphonies, though the greatest recorded performances from the past remain the more urgent listening priorities.'

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