Brahms Symphony No 3 & Alto Rhapsody
In Abbado's hands, the opening of the symphony is a massive gesture, the rising wind motif suggesting a drama-in-progress, the Berlin strings saturating and intense with their impassioned burst of F major. Muti gives us swagger and gloss: notably more impetus, cleaner, shinier lines and pointed, rather over-emphatic accenting from his violins on the second downward phrase of the theme. Already, credentials have been presented: as if we didn't already know it, the two Italians are worlds apart, musically, temperamentally.
Right from the start, Abbado is a sweeping presence: one may initially feel the need for greater momentum, a more propulsive forward-reaching tempo, but the inner-tensions are quite extraordinary and the splendour of the Berlin strings simply irresistible. Duly noted is the moment that we swing from the exposition, riding the cellos' surging variant of the second subject. The questing development brings poetic horns and hushed minor-key revelations in colour—wonderfully atmospheric—and for all Abbado's breadth there is always a surfeit of rhythmic resilience: as witness the recapitulation and coda. Needless to say, the mellifluous Berlin winds make wonderful music in the Andante, and that glorious modulation in burgeoning violins (6' 15''—leading us back to the opening material) is, as expected, a moment to treasure. Abbado is again generous to a fault with the third movement valse triste, full of gorgeous refinements, and his finale is powerfully projected with clear sinewy counterpoint and biting syncopations. An element of 'magic fire' infuses the last pages as flickering violins trace out the final statement of the opening theme. I would only say that the recording is a little too denselypacked for me, though I certainly go for its weight and tonal bloom.
Philips serve Muti rather better with their more natural, open imaging. We've a more profiled wind choir, inner parts are well integrated but better defined. Cleaner, leaner in sound, then, but alas leaner in substance and spirit, too. Beyond the generally well-chosen tempos and exemplary balances, Muti conveys little of Abbado's involvement, his inwardness and intensity. Comparisons between the two in the mysterious first movement development find Abbado thoroughly engaged and Muti merely cosmetic. Aspects of his phrasing, his rubato, his dynamic gradation, are apt to sound affected, manufactured. The big exclamatory tenuto he imposes as crescendoing horns herald the final restatement of the opening theme is both awkward and vulgar, calling to mind a lamentable account of the Schubert Ninth that he gave in London only last season. Of course there is stylishness and Philadelphian sheen in the middle movements, even a tasteful deployment of portamento—ravishing in the aforementioned bridge passage towards the close of the second. The third is full of melancholic lingering. Surprisingly enough, his finale is kept well within bounds, a shadow of Abbado's imposing muscularity. One small point of balance: the concluding recollection of the main theme (that wafting tremolo in the violins) is so discreet as to be almost indiscernible. We hear it because we know it's there.
No question, then, as to where my preferences lie: Abbado's Brahms Third is quite simply as fine an account as I know. The respective fill-ups alter nothing. Muti's 'carrot', and a very considerable one at that, is Jessye Norman whose majestic tone and manner might have been born to the Alto Rhapsody. In the event, though, she does not eclipse Baker (Boult/EMI—coupled with the Symphony No. 4) or the recent van Nes (Decca/Blomstedt); I feel less confidence in her control and support these days, and one or two moments of dubious intonation also unsettle. Abbado delivers a taut and determined Tragic Overture, superbly chronicled, dramatically swept forward on the crest of dark-hued Berlin strings. More valuable still is his luminous account of Brahms's hymn (after Holderlin) to destiny: heavenly bliss versus earthly strife. Brahms was in no doubt where his troubled journey would end: beyond the silver lining or not at all. What a radiant piece this is.'