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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1855/76) [39:32]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877)^* [34:39]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)^ [29:18]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884/5) [36:41]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880)* [9:22]
London Symphony Orchestra/^London Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
rec. Abbey Road Studio London/*Kingsway Hall, London, 16, 18 February 1939 (Op. 68); 26 February 1940 (Op. 73); 6 October 1938 (Op. 90); 14 February 1938 (Op. 98); 29 February 1940 (Op. 80). ADD
LIVING ERA CLASSICS AJD 2009 [74:18 + 75:52]


This set usefully gathers together the recordings of the Brahms symphonies that Weingartner made for Columbia between 1938 and 1940. One of these recordings, that of Number 4, was familiar to me from the boxed set of historic Brahms symphony performances that I reviewed a couple of years ago (see review).

It’s worth reminding ourselves that when Weingartner (1863-1942) began his conducting career in the mid-1880s Brahms was still very much alive. Indeed, the Fourth symphony dates from around this time. In his very useful liner notes David Patmore doesn’t actually comment on any direct lineage between Weingartner and Brahms. However, it may well be significant that one of his early appointments was as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow at Hamburg; although Patmore comments that there Weingartner “controversially offered a straightforward alternative to von Bülow’s highly subjective interpretations.” Notwithstanding the difference in approach between Weingartner and von Bülow the young conductor was learning his conducting craft during Brahms’s twilight years and it is likely that he came into contact with conductors and other musicians who were immersed in the contemporary style of Brahms interpretation. Thus I don’t think it’s too fanciful to imagine that in Weingartner’s interpretations we have a link with the authentic Brahms tradition and perhaps it’s no surprise that to some extent his approach to these works put me in mind of the bracing and provocative set that Sir Charles Mackerras recorded a few years ago (Telarc CD-80450) in which he tried to recreate the performing style and scale of the orchestras of Brahms’s time.

These are performances that in general are characterised by a fairly lean and robust approach. They won’t suit all tastes, especially the taste of those who like their Brahms to sound mellow and autumnal – and there’s nothing wrong with that! – but I think these performances have much to commend them to collectors.

Symphony No. 1 opens with an introduction that is at a good, forward-moving pace. The reading is not as massive as one sometimes hears and I like this conception. The main allegro is thrusting and strongly propelled. Weingartner maintains his basic pulse pretty consistently and there are far fewer modifications of the basic tempo than one often hears. In the main I like this, though there were occasions when I wished Weingartner had been just a little more yielding. I feel that he makes Brahms sound more classical than some other interpreters and generally speaking I think this is to be welcomed.

In the second movement Weingartner’s approach sounds somewhat meditative and the music is presented in quite a solemn way. This is a non-interventionist but rather dignified way of playing Brahms. He keeps the third movement light on its feet and moves it forward nicely though, frankly, there’s little that one can ‘do’ interpretatively with this fairly straightforward and short movement anyway. There’s no lack of power or drama in the introduction to the finale, which sounds dark and brooding here. The great ‘Alpine’ theme unfolds naturally and when the big string melody appears it flows nicely. There’s biting urgency in the main allegro and the movement as a whole is exciting and vital. Weingartner whips up the pace most effectively in the lead-up to the majestic chorale, which is presented with just sufficient grandeur though without undue broadening – thank goodness. The conclusion to the symphony is proud and emphatic.

I’d sum this up as a direct and successful interpretation, albeit perhaps more objective than one is accustomed to hearing nowadays. The LSO play their full part by executing Weingartner’s intentions with commitment.

The opening of Symphony No. 2 displays a clear-eyed purity, which turns out to be a hallmark of Weingartner’s overall view of the movement.  He’s by no means inflexible and he doesn’t short-change the lyrical side of Brahms’s inspiration but once again we find an approach that’s fundamentally rigorous.  As the development unfolds so the conductor’s grip on proceedings and his sense of drama become ever more evident – and more impressive. The music is presented without undue histrionics but it’s a powerful view nonetheless. By this means the relaxation that Brahms builds in at 7:41 in this performance is all the more effective. In the lead-up to the coda the string accompaniment to the solo horn - from about 11:40 - is more on a level par with the horn than one sometimes hears and is played with no little urgency. I suspect that the balance between horn and strings is more Weingartner’s doing than the engineer’s and I approve. The coda itself is well managed.

The second movement is played with more than a touch of gravitas. Some listeners may find the style too serious. For myself I prefer a lighter, more lyrical touch but I can appreciate Weingartner’s thinking though this is as serious a reading of this movement as I can readily recall. The third movement is simple and direct and I admired the dexterity of the wind players – the strings are pretty nimble too. Weingartner drives the finale quite hard at times, though not excessively so, I think. What’s very evident – as elsewhere in this cycle – is his keen control of rhythm. He relaxes where it’s appropriate but in so doing he never sacrifices forward momentum. This is an exciting and fiercely committed reading.

This isn’t, perhaps, the most openhearted and happy performance of this glorious symphony that I’ve heard but I’d still rate is as a pretty considerable reading.

I like the pace Weingartner sets at the outset of Symphony No. 3 which is quite resolute and well marked. His lean and muscular reading is clear in both texture and intention. I found that this performance blazed with conviction and involved at least this listener fully. The presentation of the second movement is straightforward but here I felt that perhaps the phrases could have been shaped with just a touch more affection. The third movement is suitably warm though, unsurprisingly, Weingartner keeps the music on the move - and rightly so.  In the finale rhythms are once again taut. The performance is finely controlled and athletic and the central climax is powerful. At 6:25 comes the marvellous golden sunset moment when Brahms prepares us for his final contemplation of the motif with which the whole symphony began. Weingartner handles this passage and, indeed, the symphony’s very end sensitively but sensibly.

Revisiting Weingartner’s traversal of Symphony No. 4 I find no cause to change my verdict of two years ago. His view of the work is clear and forthright. He draws fine, committed playing from the LSO.  Characteristically he controls the rhythms tightly (but never to the extent that the music sounds constrained). This is particularly important in the first movement, of which he gives a splendid performance. Some may find his reading of the second movement disconcertingly brisk. However, as elsewhere in the cycle Weingartner, I think, appreciates that Brahms didn’t write symphonic adagios and that the middle movements of his symphonies tend to be more like intermezzi with the weight of the argument falling on the outer movements. He gives a robust account of the third movement with the rhythms once again splendidly taut. The concluding passacaglia is trenchant and darkly powerful. In terms of drama Weingartner does not short change the listener and all in all, I think his is a very successful performance of the symphony.

To complete the set we are offered a good, if slightly straight-faced account of the Academic Festival Overture. In this performance I was more aware than in the symphonies of one or two minor bits of scrappy playing but overall it has to be said that in this set Weingartner obtains disciplined and committed playing from both the LSO and LPO.

Generally the recordings have transferred well. There is some surface hiss, for example at the start of the second and fourth movements of the First symphony but I found that this was not much of a distraction. The sound for the Third symphony is, perhaps, the most ‘boxy’, especially at the fiery start, but once again the ear soon adjusts. The only comparison I was able to do was in the Fourth symphony where I found that the transfer offered by Andante sounded warmer, especially in the first movement – but then the comparison between the two transfers of the finale revealed little to choose. Given that these recordings are well over sixty years old they have some up remarkably well and an amazing amount of detail is reported – for example the contrabassoon registers very well at key points. The notes by David Patmore are good, as I’ve already indicated.

This is an intriguing set that adds significantly to our knowledge and appreciation of the interpretative history of these four symphonic masterpieces. One may not agree with every detail but these robust readings are convincing and stimulating and they will be of great interest to all collectors who love Brahms’s symphonies. As Naxos has already made available Weingartner’s fine Beethoven symphony cycle there is now ample opportunity for us to appreciate the objective and distinguished approach to symphonic music of Felix Weingartner.

John Quinn


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