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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

Szell's Brahms

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 27 Mar 2008 17:19:17 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (147 lines)

Johannes Brahms
Orchestral Music

*  Symphony No. 1 in c, op. 68
*  Variations on a Theme of Haydn in B-flat, op. 56
*  5 Hungarian Dances (orch. Dvorak) - Nos. 17-21*

The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy*
Sony 82876-78764-2 Total time: 70:27

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 Dvorak 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 LSO
on Cala or Bernstein's first reading on Sony.  The sound of the Cleveland
here is steely, rather than gemuetlich 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's 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 Dvorak'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.

Steve Schwartz

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