ENDNOTES, 9th November 2015
In this edition:
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts Brahms and Bruckner; Paul Spicer directs the choral music of Samuel Barber; Chandos issues new CD of Ligeti, Nielsen and Hindemith
Anyone who has listened to and marvelled at the disciplined, razor-sharp yet sumptuous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on the Deutsche Grammophon label will know that the ensemble is often regarded as the benchmark for all major symphony orchestras. When buying DG recordings in the 1970s and ‘80s, the name of Herbert von Karajan appeared to sweep all before it: his were seen as definitive recordings, especially of the central European classics. (As an incidental point, Karajan, when in London during the 1950s and recording on EMI with Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra, may have assisted with this British orchestra’s reputation as the home version of the Berlin Philharmonic.*) Today, Sir Simon Rattle carries the torch in Berlin, bringing his own style to performances, but perhaps bringing to mind not the era of Karajan, but the era that preceded him: that of the great romantic and classicist, Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954).
This conductor’s recordings date from the mono era, but it is clear that German sound engineers were ahead of their time, and that the Berlin Philharmonic of the 1940s (vividly captured even on the more constricted “scratchy” pressings of the day) was very much the full-sounding, modern orchestra which we – the listeners of the stereo era – know and love. Available on the budget-price Naxos label in its vintage ‘Great Conductors’ series, is a CD devoted to two fine recordings: a Brahms Second Symphony (D major, Op. 73) and the slow movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major. Although the Berlin Philharmonic is Furtwängler’s vehicle for the Bruckner (which was recorded on the 1st April 1942 – a year when the tide was most definitely turning against Germany in the war), the Brahms dates from 1948 – from a recording made at Kingsway Hall with Sir Thomas Beecham’s old orchestra, the London Philharmonic. Again – to digress just slightly, Furtwängler had remained loyal – not to the Nazis, but to Germany, remaining in his country right up to its Wagnerian immolation and defeat of 1945. Following many interviews by the conquering United States authorities, the post-war world was satisfied that Furtwängler was not a party to what had come to pass in his country during the Third Reich – instead, merely an old-fashioned German patriot, and an aristocrat and elitist of the spirit.
Let me say immediately that the Brahms performance is one of true majesty – the Second being, perhaps, the less well-known of the four symphonies (it certainly doesn’t seem to played as much as Nos. 1 and 4, although the Third also remains a little elusive in our concert halls). Furtwängler brings his whole heritage of German thought and romanticism to the work, and one can imagine the conductor’s furrowed brow in the Adagio, his clear, emphatic – but never overblown – direction and baton technique in the Allegro con spirito which brings the symphony to its blazing, sunlit, deluge of a finale. Listen to the slow, deliberate, hushed, dark beginning to this movement under the master’s direction – before he seems to change speed entirely, bringing the LPO fully into this joyful piece of music.
The Bruckner Seventh – the war recording from the disc – conveys a different mood entirely: a heavy, heaving, Gothic elegy in orchestral slow-motion, reaching its great climax after much sorrow and reflection, and achieving not exactly a blaze of light, but a blaze of reflected light and older glory: the affirmation of a German culture of the past, and a sense of the tension of the time in which Furtwängler conducted it. For any enthusiast of late-romantic music, this has to be an essential disc. And if you are, perhaps, more interested in tracing the development of 20th-century recordings and performance styles, once again, you will find this purchase irresistible. (Naxos Historical, catalogue number: 8.111000.)
In complete contrast, the choral music of Samuel Barber (1910-81) takes us to the composer’s native America – Sure on this shining night, Under the willow tree, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map (written for the Curtis Institute, but a memorial to the Spanish Civil War) – all performed with immaculate commitment by the excellent Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir under that well-known choral conductor, teacher and impressive recording artist, Paul Spicer. Barber’s music combines a tonality and bitter-sweet romanticism, which is often tinged, and sometimes shot through with a 20th-century intensity – yet exuding an equally characterful American pastoralism. The latter quality comes to the fore in the Easter Chorale, part 4 of the Op. 16 sequence, Reincarnations. God’s Grandeur – part 5 – is also highly-memorable. Best known is the final item on the disc, the Agnus Dei, a choral version of the Adagio for Strings – a work played by every American orchestra as a memorial to deceased Presidents or at moments of national reflection. Recorded at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire on the 26th and 27th June, 2014, listeners can expect the finely-captured sound quality, clarity and out of-the-ordinary repertoire for which Somm is celebrated. (Somm CD 0152.)
Finally, more Samuel Barber – his Summer Music, Op. 31 (from 1956) – on a Chandos compilation entitled: Twentieth-Century Chamber Works for Winds. Performed by those polished professionals of London Winds (Philippa Davies, flute-piccolo; Gareth Hulse, oboe and cor-anglais; Michael Collins, clarinet; Richard Watkins, French horn, Robin O’Neill, bassoon; Peter Sparks, bass clarinet), the CD provides an adventurous salon for those who love more contemporary music. Yet strangely, one of the most contemporary voices on the recording – that of the sometimes macabre György Ligeti (1923-2006) – offers an unexpected lightness of touch in Sechs Bagatellen – the Six Bagatelles (1953).
Nielsen’s Quintet, Op. 43, offers a pleasant respite from the stormy Jutland seas and Nordic landscapes of his six symphonies – although the work, at 26 minutes, is almost symphonic in length; and Hindemith’s 1922 Kleine Kammermusic, Op. 24 No. 2 takes us into the sound-world of the Weimar Republic – Hindemith, like Brecht and Weill, often showing a lurid, yet astringent, merciless modernism. However, the Kammermusic is not unpleasant to the ear – although certainly challenging and requiring a great deal from the players. The collection ends in 1924, with Janacek’s Mladi – or Youth, some 17 minutes in length, and a fine example of the Czech symphonic and opera composer’s mastery of chamber music.
Stuart Millson, Classical Music Editor
*During his London sojourn, Karajan recorded Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – an unusual side to a conductor known chiefly for Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner