Nicholas Milton’s Fascinating Brahms

cover Prospero Classics PROSP00345

BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Academic Festival Overture / Göttinger Symphonie Orchester; Nicholas Milton, cond . Prospero Classics PROSP00345

This strangely neglected set, culled from individual previous releases which were also neglected by most music lovers and critics, embody what I feel is, on balance, the best digital recording of these symphonies yet made. The reasons for their being neglected probably boil down to two: 1) most people have never heard of Nicholas Milton, and 2) the majority of music lovers have probably never heard, as I had not previously heard, of Prospero Classical, which suggests to me that not only are they a small independent label, but they must have very little budget for promotion and advertising.

I discovered online that Nicholas Milton is a 54-year-old Australian violinist and conductor who previously directed the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.  In 2015, he and German pianist Joseph Moog earned a Grammy nomination in the best classical instrumental solo category for the record Grieg & Moszkowski: Piano Concertos. But being well known in Canberra and receiving a Grammy nomination, but not an actual Grammy, apparently doesn’t carry much weight. Milton has been Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Göttingen Symphony since 2018.

After listening to a cross-section of this set and being greatly impressed by it, I looked online…and looked and looked and looked…but the only review I could find was written by Remy Franck on April 11 of this year. An abridged version of this review follows; you can read the whole thing on his Pizzicato website.

Nicholas Milton has been Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra since 2018. With this formation, he has recorded the Four Symphonies as well as Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture for Prospero. The fact that Brahms stayed in Göttingen several times may have been an incentive for this production, but much more important is the fact that these interpretations turned out so well… full of tension throughout, and although the recording is somewhat bass-heavy, the transparency is immediately noticeable. Milton, who certainly realizes the urgency of the music and always enlivens its flow with accents and rubati, sharpens the dialogue between the various orchestral groups. Many passages become so interesting that one listens closely to register novel-sounding developments. How excellently the Australian structures and shapes the music is shown – to cite just one example of many possible – by the beginning of the last movement, which becomes particularly meaningful.

It is fascinating what Milton does in terms of details, how he structures the various levels, and achieves great transparency in the process. And so I can only say: here we have a top-class complete recording of the Brahms symphonies, which can only be recommended and which also is enriching for listeners who know their Brahms very well.

My judgment, which I hope to justify in the extended review below, is that these are not only the best Brahms symphony recordings of the digital era but one of the best sets ever made, period. These recordings not only rival the historic complete sets by Felix Weingartner and Arturo Toscanini (1, 3 & 4 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, No. 2 with NBC), but they are better than everyone who came after them. Even Michael Gielen, whose set of these symphonies I previously admired, comes in a distant third to what Milton does here.

Having made a comparison of Milton’s achievement to Weingartner and Toscanini, I must make clear that his tempi are generally slower, at times considerably so. The most extreme example, in fact, is the first movement of the first symphony which clocks in at a little over 16 minutes, far slower than almost anyone else, even slower than Joseph Keilberth who often conducted relatively slow performances of the standard repertoire. Yet since Brahms, unlike Beethoven, did not use metronome markings but did indicate very meticulous and precise tempo changes when necessary, the comparison holds up in terms of orchestral detail, which is absolutely incredible. Time and again, you will hear little details in these movements that even Toscanini did not bring out as clearly, and Milton accomplishes this without exaggerating or over-italicizing those details. They’re just there.

The recorded sound is closely miked but not shrill or over-reverberant; on the contrary, the sound is warm and rich, giving the Göttinger orchestra a sound profile similar to the early 1950s recordings made by the old Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI, yet at the same time the high range is not muffled or too badly covered. All of this helps you focus on the music and what Milton does with it, and as one who knows these scores pretty darn well (not as well as the Beethoven or Mahler Symphonies, but well enough), I can tell you that he is an absolute stickler for following what Brahms has written, not only in the orchestral detail but in the small but frequent tempo changes and dynamics.

Since I had no access to a booklet for this recording, I can’t tell you how large the Göttinger forces used on these recordings were, but they sounded like less than the usual 110-to-120 musicians normally used nowadays. To check, I went to the orchestra’s official website, totaled up the musicians listed, and came up with 69 musicians as follows: 23 violins, 6 violas, 7 cellos, 4 basses, 3 flutes, 4 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 5 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 1 harp, 1 tympanist and 2 percussionists. This, too, helps with the orchestral clarity.

One thing that separates Milton’s slower tempo from, say, those of Otto Klemperer or Hans Knappertsbusch in Brahms is his greater forward momentum, but unlike Weingartner or Toscanini who pushed the beat, Milton seems to pull it, and there’s a difference. Under his baton, the music assumes a flow and not a stampede—although, to be fair, Toscanini’s live performances of the Brahms symphonies with the Philharmonia were much more organic and less nervous-sounding than several of his NBC broadcasts and recordings of them.

The second symphony has always been the problem child of the set: quiet and reflective music rather than dynamic and exciting, it sometimes fails to make as much of an impression than the others. Weingartner, Leopold Stokowski, Charles Munch, Toscanini and Michael Gielen solved this problem by increasing the speed, which did work in its own way, but here Milton manages to keep the musical river flowing without dragging at more conventional (or slightly slower than conventional) tempi. Again, Milton takes a fairly slow tempo in the first movement, but not exaggeratedly so; in fact, it’s not that far off from the Toscanini-Philharmonia performance. One difference is that he does use more rubato and rallentando effects, all of which are in the score.  Another is that Milton observes all of the repeats, which other conductors do not. His treatment of the third movement has a lightness and dance-like rhythm similar to a Mendelssohn scherzo. At just about the two-minute mark in the last movement, there’s a very tricky syncopated passage (look it up in the score; it looks even more complicated than it sounds) which Milton handles as easily as if he were rolling off a log. VERY nicely done! He also handles the sudden slower tempo at 3:57 in this movement as well as the rubato effects in the middle of this passage with aplomb.

The Third Symphony, which many (including myself) consider to be Brahms’ best, also includes many more moment of rubato that one is used to hearing, even in the first movement (not marked in the score, but implied by the way the phrasing is constructed). In the fourth, Milton downplays the little brass fanfares in the first movement, perhaps undeservedly so, yet it all seems to fit.

All Brahms fanciers know that the composer’s favorite conductor of his works was Fritz Steinbach, who died in 1916 without having made a single recording, which is a pity. But they also know that the two most famous Steinbach pupils who did make records had completely opposite conducting styles: Fritz Busch and Hans Knappertsbuch. (Karl Elmendorff, another Steinbach pupil who recorded, left us no Brahms performances; his conducting of other composers lay somewhere between Busch and Knappertsbusch in tempo and phrasing, but except for his 1930 Tannhäuser, his performances are rather dull.) Thus the jury is still out on exactly how Steinbach conducted Brahms, although both Weingartner and Toscanini heard him do so and, as noted, their performances were generally quite swift, especially the former. The Academic Festival Overture is also quite good.

My final thoughts: although in terms of setting slower basic tempi and in his use of some fluctuations Milton’s performances are a bit eccentric, he follows the scores very closely, one might say almost fanatically so, without italicizing anything. A very interesting take on Brahms, then, and for the most part valid.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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