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CD Review

Brahms Symphonies

  • Johannes Brahms:
  • Symphony #1 in C minor *
  • Symphony #2 in D Major
  • Symphony #3 in F Major
  • Symphony #4 in E minor
  • Variations on a Theme by Haydn "St. Antoni Chorale" *
  • Hungarian Dances #1, 3 &10 *
  • Ludwig van Beethoven:
  • Overture "Coriolan" *
  • Overture "Leonore"
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
* Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
EMI 565513-2 3CDs
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Recently EMI sent me the Brahms Symphonies on a three CD set with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting [EMI 65513]. The First Symphony was with the Vienna Philharmonic, the remaining ones with the Berlin. I had been studying the 4th, so I started with that one. While I admired what I was hearing, I felt that something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on what it was until I put on the same work as conducted by Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933 [Biddulph 017-18]. The Stokowski version had me tapping my toe and swinging with the music, the Furtwängler only intermittently had that effect.

Still, I was not able to place exactly what made the difference so. Then I listened to the First Symphony by both conductors [Furtwängler's from 1952, Stokowski's from 1927]. Slowly the significance of the difference dawned as I was able to put into words what I was hearing.

Stokowski interviews are notorious. Usually you have to sit through a long line of BS to glean any meaningful comments. In one I recall Stokowski talking about boxing as a young man!!! Anyway, one comment he made stayed with me and I realized that it held the key to explaining the difference. It was in an interview with Jerry Fox in 1970. Stokowski, talking about Mahler, said:

"A sculpture can be high relief and low relief, so in music can be high relief and low relief. Some instruments are put back into the secondary level and others stand out prominently; that's a question of balance between the instruments, or relief….I sometimes hear performances of Mahler, and other composers, where all instruments are about equal and nothing is in relief and nothing is clear. There is no sense of balance between single instruments or groups of instruments…"

In Furtwängler's performances the balance between the beat, powerfully emphasized by the drum(s), is dominant while the strings, carrying the melody, are subordinate to the beat. That is a very Beethovian interpretation and, to that extent, a valid one. My problem is that I do not hear the Brahms Symphonies as the step children of Beethoven. I know that in his life some critics talked of the Brahms Symphonies as "Beethoven's 10th, etc." but I do not agree.

Stokowski's performances integrate the beat more within the melody. While it is not subordinate, it is not the dominating force. This is a Brahms more in line with my feelings about the symphonies, more melodic and romantic. What is more, the recording of the Stokowski set is more detailed (the Furtwängler is from radio broadcasts) and sounds better even though recorded about 20 years earlier.

Let's consider the First Symphony. Entertain the following notion. The First Symphony is Brahms' farewell to the ghost of Beethoven. It opens solemnly but forcefully, fully a Beethovian gesture. As the symphony progresses, however, it changes mood. By the fourth movement we are leaving Beethoven forever. The solo leading into the finale is a metamorphosis leading to a joyful ode to freedom that brought to mind the one in Shostakovich's 10th ! Such an interpretation captures the essence of this symphony and Brahms.

Furtwängler will have none of this. His Brahms First is a Beethoven's 10th . While there is a lot to admire in this interpretation, there is little to love. It does not move me as Stokowski does.

The same problems of interpretation haunt all of the Furtwängler performances, especially when you listen to Stokowski as a comparison. If you want to invest in a "historic" set of the Brahms Symphonies I'd readily recommend the Stokowski over the Furtwängler. The Stokowski cycle, was by the way, the first symphonic cycle to be recorded by anyone. All of the Stokowski performances are truly "historic", the First and Second are arguably among the finest ever.

Of more recent recordings, Bruno Walter got it perfect. His cycle recorded in California is a loving, living testament to Brahms as Brahms, not as Beethoven's successor. Another set to recommend, if you can find it, is a digital one with the Czech Philharmonic under Bĕlohlávek. The Supraphon recording offers delicious details and perfect relief.

I know that Furtwängler is highly regarded as a conductor. I love his Beethoven and Bruckner. His Brahms, however, is not my cup of tea. After listening to Furtwängler's Brahms, turning to Stokowski is a relief. (Sorry.)

First Hearing

I am not a fan of the young superstar cult. One of my favorite stories is of Jascha Heifetz talking with the Marx brothers and telling them that he had been supporting his family playing since 7. Harpo's rejoinder was, "And I suppose before that you were a bum." Still, a few years ago while shopping at a record store I was stopped and heard the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the "first" time. I had actually heard it before, but this interpretation was a revelation. I asked who it was and purchased Maxim Vengerov's recording (coupled with the Bruch in E minor on Teldec 98075 2 with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhausirchester Leipzig). I read a review of his latest release in Gramophone last month, the Tchaikovsky and Glazunov concerti with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (Teldec 90881 2) and decided to give it a listen when it became available.

Last night I put on the headphones and closed out the real world to enter the virtual reality of music. I listened only to the Tchaikovsky. My initial reaction is "WOW!!!" I have no idea how he gets the violin to sound like that!!! He plays on the "Regnier" Stradivarius of 1727 (for what it's worth) but I am still searching for words to describe his sound, currently "earthy, pungent" come to mind. More later.

Second Hearing

In another issue of Maestrino I reviewed Mariss Jansons' recording (EMI 5 55227 2) of Rimsky-Korsakov's Schéhérazade (played with the London Symphony and coupled with Capriccio Espagñol). I gave a rave review at that time. Consequent listening has only strengthened that response. I would have to say that this recording is among the best ever set to disc. As a Jazz enthusiast friend of mine puts it, "Man, he kicks my shit!"

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II