BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a – Radio-Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart/ Hans Knappertsbusch – Hanssler Classic

by | Jan 22, 2007 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a – Radio-Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart/ Hans Knappertsbusch – Hanssler Classic CD 93.177, 65:28 (Distrib. Allegro) ****:

Recorded live 15 November 1963, the Brahms Third and Haydn Variations under Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) represent, except for another such programming in Munich the same year, the last time the conductor performed these works in public. Of the four symphonies of Brahms, the Third remained Knappertsbusch’s favorite–he made his Munich State Opera debut with it in 1922–and he constantly reworked its FAF/FAE ethos for a grandly tragic effect. The interpretation itself is entirely in the Romantic, voluptuous strain, closely akin to Leonard Bernstein’s equally stretched and coddled version of the Brahms Third with the Vienna Philharmonic late in his own career. Digitally re-edited (2006) by Dietmar Wolf, the concert performances by Knappertsbusch enjoy a high, penetrating gloss and wonderful, internal vocalization among the instruments.

While some auditors will certainly object to the slow, thickly-layered approach to this music, others will find the creamy textures redolent with the composer’s moody, introspective ethos, a plangent melancholy – particularly elegiac in the Andante. The grand leisure in the middle section waxes rife with fin-de-siecle pathos, a farewell to a way of life celebrated in Stefan Zweig’s lyrical memoir, The World of Yesterday. The luxurious cello line that opens the Poco allegretto speaks for itself; the subdivided violins answer in glowing, aching phrases. Autumnal colors, singing lines in the flute, violas, and French horns, bestow upon the broad tempos a sense of continuity that could easily be lost in the throes of individual details. The music achieves a kind of stasis, then the familiar French horn call, with pizzicato strings and oboe, brings us back to an idealized nostalgia. A moody sobriety marks the last movement Allegro, here rendered as a kind of martial extension to Beethoven’s “Fate” Symphony in C Minor. The internal struggle for harmonic dominance becomes monumentally intensified, the light desperately trying to shine through intimations of mortality. When the clouds do dissipate, the airiness and sense of restored harmony shimmer with a Wordsworthian certitude in the glories of this life.  The Variations in B-flat on the chorale borrowed by Haydn for a divertimento were originally premiered by Brahms (1873) for his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic. Musically akin to the D Major Serenade by Brahms, the music finds its darker hues exploited by Knappertsbusch in deliberately slow, stately tempos. The first variation is almost a waltzing dirge, kin to All Flesh is Like Grass from Ein Deutsches Requiem. The Andante con moto variation 4, the Vivace (played pesant) variation 6, and Grazioso (siciliano) variation 7 stand out as demonstrations of orchestral control, culminating in the passacaglia which reaches for an operatic apogee, a trial run for the E Minor Symphony. Romantic, self-indulgent Brahms without apologies.

— Gary Lemco

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