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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Sony 78764

Orchestral Music

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • Variations on a Theme of Haydn in B Flat Major, Op. 56
  • 5 Hungarian Dances (orch. Dvořák) #17-21 *
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
* Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sony 82876-78764-2 70:27
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A classic re-issued, yet again.

I've known Szell's recording of the Brahms first since it came out on LP, which gives you some idea of my advanced age. Since then, Columbia/CBS/Sony has released it at least once more on LP and at least three times on CD. I'd guess they've made their money back by now.

Szell is known for his Beethoven, but I find his Wagner, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák even more compelling. Not everyone, of course, agrees with me. Those who like "warm" Brahms, who go for large emotional gestures, or who prefer an orchestral sound like glowing gold will probably not take to this recording. For them, there's always Stokowski and the London Symphony on Cala or Bernstein's first reading on Sony. The sound of the Cleveland here is steely, rather than gemütlich or hyper. However, if Bernstein gives you Brahms the Romantic, Szell gives you Brahms the Classicist and reminds you that Brahms had brains as well as inspiration. Beethoven's music, particularly the Fifth and Ninth, haunts this symphony, and Szell draws out the connections like no other. One also gets the benefit of Szell's acuity toward musical structure. In so many readings, for example, the pounding chromatic introduction gets hit for the momentary thrill and then thrown away. Szell shows you the consequences of that passage throughout the movement. Also, Szell brings out the relationships between the first and second subject groups, so much so that the second sounds like a riff on the first, thus creating a very tight, unified argument. This is the most cohesive reading of the first movement I know.

More of the same for the second movement, as Brahms pays homage to the Beethoven adagio. Again, Szell delivers a mostly-cool reading, emphasizing the links both to the first movement and to Beethoven. Nevertheless, things heat up, becoming more ardent toward the end, with the extended violin solo. In the third movement, Brahms momentarily lets go of Beethoven and speaks in his own voice – to me, the most loveable part of the symphony – with a ravishing first subject. This is Szell at his finest, stirring the listener without pandering or hoking things up. He creates the illusion of the composer speaking directly to you, minus an interpretive filter. It's also the quality of Szell's Mozart that appeals to me the most. It's an illusion, of course, and I'm sure Szell thought long and hard to create it. The account features the seamless, silvery clarinet of first chair Robert Marcellus, who matches the conductor refinement for refinement. Here, structurally, Szell brings out the echoes of the trio section of the scherzo to Beethoven's Fifth, but many conductors have done so. However, because Szell's texture is so clear, Szell does what many conductors cannot: allow Brahms to adumbrate in a subsidiary line in the violins during the recap the famous theme of the finale.

A transition-introduction begins the fourth movement. It has its roots, of course, in both the transition to the finale of Beethoven's Fifth and the introduction to Beethoven's Ninth. As an act of pure composition, I prefer it to either Beethoven. It does more, for one thing. It looks both backward to first movement agitato and forward in a struggle to bring the finale theme into being and to provide material for the movement proper. Szell makes you feel the tug in both directions. The theme, when it finally breaks, does so in a sturdy way, similar to the theme of the Haydn Variations. Some conductors haven't a clue about the architectural function of the passage and treat it as a series of Lovely Moments on the way to the Big Tune. Others understand its implications for the movement. Szell, in a class practically by himself, also makes you realize that Brahms has been preparing you for this movement from almost the very first. Szell delivers not only a coherent movement, but a cohesive symphony.

Many have mistakenly pointed out a similarity between Brahms' theme and Beethoven's theme for the Ode to Joy, ignoring all the more obvious appropriations from the older composer earlier in the symphony. I mostly agree with Tovey: the main similarity between this theme and the other is that this is one of the few themes in a class with the Beethoven. I would add, however, that it has the same feeling of summing up as the other. Nevertheless, my interest in the movement lies more on the periphery, rather than with the famous melody itself. The nervous and the agitated draw me more, and a conductor can easily go over the top or run out of dynamic room on the loud end of things, so that when the big tune recurs, it stands in the shadow of the storm, rather than, as Brahms I believe meant, triumphs over the storm. In Szell's account, the appearance of the great horn theme from the movement's introduction puts the brake on fury. Sunlight breaks through the clouds. Even though the stress tries to return, it returns with an almost-joyful difference, to the crowning, blazing chorale in the brass. The Big Tune, after all, is not the point. The movement has been leading to the chorale via the conflict between the tune and the tempest. The movement arrives there. Consequently, it can't be upstaged by the return of the great theme. For me, this criterion sinks many a famous account, but not Szell's, which I now admit, is probably my favorite, along with, improbably, Monteux's so-different one.

The Haydn Variations receive a crisp and taut reading. Again, those who want something broader would do better elsewhere and have a wide choice. If Szell's reading snaps, it's also not overblown, but an emphasis on Brahms the Classicist. It is also filled with subtleties. The main danger of the theme lies in the four-squareness of its periods. Brahms responds to this everywhere by coming up with asymmetrical variations. Even the variation for the French horns, the most "balanced" of the set, gets a kind of classical raspberry at the end of each period. The one place Brahms leaves alone is, of course, in the opening statement of the theme itself. Szell counteracts this through a command of both dynamic and the elegant phrase. One hears these traits especially in those variations where the theme appears off-center and out of the blue. Just in case you were wondering, the reading has plenty of blood, particularly in the quick variations and throws off more sparks than many more "Romantic," overstated accounts, simply because the rhythm is so sharp. After all, when everyone attacks together, a lot of sludge is eliminated, and one gets more power at a lower, clearer dynamic. Overall, a contained, controlled, and tight performance.

As lagniappe, we get Dvořäk's orchestrations of some of the Brahms Hungarian Dances, played by Ormandy and the Philadelphia. To me, Ormandy and Szell stood at the antipodes of interpretation: Szell rhythmically tight and with a microscopic focus on detail; Ormandy instinctual, more freely singing, and a great teller of musical tales. Apparently, Ormandy, a member of a large club, couldn't stand Szell, to the extent where he refused to appear on the same label as Szell. Columbia, unfortunately, had signed the services of both conductors. Since Ormandy sold tons of recordings, Columbia gave in to his demands and created the Epic classical label for Szell. Years later, they brought Szell over to their flagship label, and shortly thereafter Ormandy left for RCA. Coincidence? After all, Szell and the Cleveland subsequently left for EMI. Ah well, it makes a good story, anyway.

The excerpts lay right up Ormandy's street: just enough schmalz without crossing over to excess; wonderful opportunities to display the coloristic virtuosity of the ensemble before Muti got his dull mitts on it. This is warm, rich playing, and they sound like they're having a great time, besides.

The disc belongs to Sony's "Great Performances" series, and in this case, the goods live up to the hype. I'll be reviewing more of these discs in the weeks and months to come.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet