Brahms Violin Concerto; Violin Sonata No 3; Paganini Variations
The most interesting items here for the collector are the three Brahms string quartets played by the Lener Quartet. Everything else has already surfaced on earlier CD transfers although, in each instance, EMI’s refurbishments are noticeably preferable to their predecessors, largely because Andrew Walter had access to the metal parts that were used for the manufacture of the original shellac discs. Biddulph’s excellent three-disc survey of Wilhelm Backhaus’s Brahms recordings (9/94) is a fair case in point, with heavier surfaces than on the EMI set – but completist collectors should note that the Biddulph discs include various Brahms solo works that EMI were obliged, presumably through lack of space, to omit (for example, the Paganini Variations and the Scherzo, Op. 1). The Brahms waltzes that Backhaus recorded contemporaneously with the pieces programmed here are included on a further References CD that includes Liebesliederwalzer with Lipatti and Nadia Boulanger (7/97).
Backhaus’s essentially masculine, no-nonsense view of Brahms will appeal to some listeners more than others. True, certain of the piano miniatures sound a mite unloved, and yet there are some that seem all the more poignant for being delivered straight ‘from the shoulder’. Take the Four Pieces, Op. 119, the first displays real plasticity of phrasing but the charming C major is almost uncaringly off-the-cuff. The two Op. 79 Rhapsodies have a Beethovenian energy and leanness of tone that suits them, the lovely “Romanze”, Op. 118 No. 5 is supple and song-like and the sullen rage that disrupts the centre of the same opus’s last piece (in E flat minor) is perfectly focused.
The concertos are similarly uneven, the First having been granted a muscular, Toscanini-style accompaniment under Boult – probably the greatest it ever received, pre-war at least, on disc – and the Second, balancing strong solo playing against a generally well-played but indifferently conducted accompaniment under Bohm. Backhaus’s ebullient reading of the First Concerto maximizes on the work’s strengths, but the Second fares far better on a later – and as yet not reissued – recording under Carl Schuricht (Decca, 10/52).
Joseph Szigeti’s first recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto vies with David Oistrakh’s second (under Franz Konwitschny, DG, 6/95) as being the most thoughtfully persuasive ever committed to disc. Subsequent remakes failed to match the eloquence, poise and sweetness of tone that Szigeti achieved in 1928 and the recording, made in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, is unbelievably realistic. True, the oboe solo at the beginning of the slow movement is alarmingly metronomic, but Szigeti’s narrative rhapsodizing thereafter sets the standard for all subsequent recordings and Harty’s structure-conscious conducting fully matches Boult’s in the First Piano Concerto. The fill-ups (a somewhat trifling reference, I admit) are wonderful, too, with Egon Petri a visionary pianistic sculptor, whether as soloist or as duo-partner. As to Szigeti, no other violinist caresses the D minor Sonata’s Adagio with such an adoring tone – although there was an equally fine rendition on the tenth side of the original set of 78s that housed the Concerto (Biddulph, 1/90)!
Which leaves the Lener recordings, all four of which visit Brahms with a manner of interpretative poetry that suggests genuine shared inspiration. The Op. 51 Quartets can, in less sympathetic hands, sound a trifle maudlin, even boring; but here they oscillate in mood and texture, restlessly, lyrically and with a phrasal flexibility that reaches the very heart of the music. Portamento is predictably to the fore and tempos are well judged, especially in the C minor Quartet’s Allegretto, which many quartets play far too slowly. The B flat Quartet emerges as genial and leisurely, the Clarinet Quintet notably enriched by Charles Draper’s warm, perfectly modulated tone. Nothing sounds rushed, tense or over-earnest and the recordings are, again, very good for the period (Op. 51 No. 2 being marginally more recessed than its companions). EMI would do well to investigate the Lener’s complete Beethoven quartet cycle.
All in all, this is an exceptionally valuable series of discs, but were I to choose just one CD from the batch – and not take into account alternative transfers or couplings – then it would have to be the Szigeti Brahms Concerto, one of the truly great recordings of the century and here sounding better than ever before. EMI’s documentation and annotation are exemplary.