BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 / Wiener Symphoniker; Philippe Jordan, cond / WPO WS021 (live: Vienna, September 25 [Symph. 1], 26 [Symph. 2], 28 [Symph. 3] & 29 [Symph. 4], 2019)
Philippe Jordan, whose set of the complete Beethoven symphonies with this same orchestra was the hot firecracker last year, here moves on to the symphonies of Brahms before leaving his post as director of the Wiener Symphoniker (heretofore referred to simply as WS).
I was curious to hear how Jordan would approach Brahms since he was the exact opposite sort of a composer from Beethoven. Whereas Beethoven often jotted down his music in the white heat of inspiration—though often revising certain passages later when he realized that they either weren’t very good or wouldn’t work—Brahms was the meticulous worker. Very little he wrote arose from inspiration; most of the time every note, every inflection, even the inner voicings and countermelodies, were the result of long hours of hard work, trying to find the exact notes and phrases he wanted to commit to paper. Yet although he was the tortoise to Beethoven’s hare, he ended up almost as revered as a composer, in part because his music was so perfectly written.
Consider the first symphony. Originally, what we hear as the opening section of the Piano Concerto No. 1 was intended to be the opening of his first symphony, though it began its life as a “Sonata for Two Pianos,” but he couldn’t think of how to develop it symphonically so he put it aside for use at another time and spent even more years gestating the first symphony. Yes, it’s a great work, one of the best first symphonies ever written; in its time, some music critics referred to it as “Beethoven’s Tenth,” but then another mental block set in. Twenty-two years later, in 1876, he revised this first symphony because he was unsatisfied with it, but then somehow managed to write his second symphony the following year (1877). In 22 years, Beethoven wrote symphonies Nos. 2-9, all five of his piano concerti, his Violin Concerto, most of his sonatas and string quartets, and a slew of miscellaneous pieces, so I think you get the drift. Five years then separated Brahms’ Third Symphony from the second, but miraculously he wrote the Fourth Symphony in 1884-5—only two years, a real “rush job” for him.
Because of this and the general Teutonic attitude towards Brahms that his music has serious intellectual depth as well as what they hear as a “spiritual” element, the general trend is to perform his symphonies a bit on the slow side. Jordan takes a sort of middle-of-the-road approach to the First, opening powerfully and not too slowly but adding several touches of rubato and, at times, a real decelerando to the music. It’s not as bad as some of the poorly-conceived interpretations of the past, such as those of Furtwängler or Celibidache (who took an agonizing 52:20 to tiptoe through this symphony), but it just lacks that extra spark to make it something out of the ordinary. You must understand, as a reviewer I have to hold performers’ feet to the fire if they’re going to record something that’s already been recorded 100 times. As I’ve said many times, I really do wish that conductors would just leave older repertoire the hell alone and start conducting a lot more contemporary music. We don’t live in the 1870s any more, not even in the early 1950s. All of the really great masterpieces of yore have been done to death and done again to death. Give it a rest and conduct music of your own time.
As a footnote to Brahms conducting style, I need to mention the name of the forgotten conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), Brahms’ favorite interpreter of his own music. Unlike such early maestri as Eduard Colonne or Artur Nikisch, Steinbach died without leaving us so much as a scrap of his conducting style on records, but he was heard and admired by Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski, among others, and it is notable that these are three conductors whose Brahms is conducted so briskly that their performances of the four symphonies fit onto TWO compact discs (more on that later). Steinbach’s conducting pupils include Hans Knappertsbusch, who after the 1930s slowed down his conducting of everything to the point where you thought the musical line would simply sag and collapse, though it didn’t, but also such proponents of brisk conducting as Fritz Busch and Karl Elmendorff. The latter became a Wagner specialist, but Busch also performed and recorded Brahms (the Second and Fourth Symphonies), and his interpretations, too, are on the quick side.
Now, I did find some fine moments in Jordan’s First Symphony that I liked, particularly the ending portion of the fourth movement, but not many. Overall the phrasing is too relaxed and slack, and when he does speed things up those moments sound forced and artificial, and at times he just can’t resist throwing in a decelerando just because he felt like it. Next to Celibidache, this is the worst performance of the First I’ve heard in my life. Has Jordan learned nothing from his study of the score or by listening to the great Brahms interpreters of the past? Mind you, the WP plays very well for him, as they did on his Beethoven set, but musically this is a misfire. Just because Brahms stopped and started numerous times when composing the symphony doesn’t give you the right to do the same when conducting it. In short, Jordan shows here no grasp of musical structure.
The second symphony is also a bit on the slow side but not enough to annoy, at least at the outset. Jordan nudges the music of the first movement forward in a good sort of way, and although there are a few rubato moments they are not exaggerated—until 14:15 into the movement, at which time Jordan appears to be taking a nap on the podium and putting the WS on cruise control. From there on to the end of the movement, it’s a long, slow, hard slog through the music, and things don’t really get much better in the succeeding three movements.
Indeed, this pattern of pay well-then-engage-in-a-taffy pull seems to be a bad recurring pattern for Jordan in Brahms. The Third Symphony doesn’t have any shape at all to it, and nothing much in the way of life. Perhaps he was struggling with Covid-19 when he recorded this set. Thus what should have been a triumph for Jordan and the WS as a sequel to the hottest firecracker of 2019 turns out to be a real wet noodle.
As a final complaint, I wasn’t happy about WS putting these four symphonies on four separate CDs. The performances of the Third and Fourth, for all their quirkiness and sluggish passages, are clearly short enough to have been put on one CD instead of two.
The best stereo or digital recording of all four symphonies is the one by Michael Gielen issued by SWR Music. For historic recordings, there is also Toscanini (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) and Weingartner, though I actually prefer the latter to the former. The WS would have done better not to even issue this set.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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