BRAHMS: Symphony Nos. 2 & 4 – The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio 

by | May 13, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 – The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 562, 79:54 []****: 

Recording Engineer and Audio Restoration Editor Mark Obert-Thorn turns his attention to the cycle of Brahms symphonies, here with the D Major (29-30 April 1929) and the E minor (4 March and 29 April 1933), that Leopold Stokowski set down for Victor Records.  The 1877 Brahms Symphony No. 2 presents much of the emotional ambiguity in Brahms: a sunny surface often conceals a melancholy or even tragic undercurrent.  The bucolic nature of the opening French horn theme in ¾ has a vague similarity to the Beethoven Eroica, with its own asymmetrical rhythmic configurations, and the dissonant trombone effects usher in a dark hue that intensifies the elegy in the minor key of the second theme.  Stokowski’s Philadelphia players of the time constitute one of the great orchestral ensembles for homogeneity of sound and virtuosic level of execution.  Witness the treatment of the main theme fugato, in which Stokowski’s forces elicit a fine transparency. On the other hand, the three trombones in the development section offer a case in point of a sense of menace that infiltrates what would appear to be an Arcadian vision. While the plastic nature of the pastoral elements virtually shines, Stokowski no less captures the tensions at the coda where C minor and D Major clash.  The movement ends with Stokowski’s light hand on the jaunty tune that attempts to give us cheer.

The Adagio non troppo opens with a grand sense of an extensive progression, solemn and majestic. The resonance of the Philadelphia low strings has remarkable poignancy. The French horn and woodwinds add to the sense of a dark serenade, supported by luminous cellos.  Christopher Dyment calls Stokowski’s treatment “overripe,” but for Brahms adherents the music projects an elegant luster, thoughtful, meditative, and deeply personal.  A true mortal storm ensues, rife with something like the Beethoven “fate” motif superimposed on grieving, falling figures.  Typically, Brahms indulges his love of agogic shifts – hemiola – to remind us of his existential sense of life’s ambiguities. The bass line becomes ardent, the polyphony lifting the pathos of the occasion to a potent climax, stormy and melancholy. The main theme returns, chorale-like, undergirded by a solemn tympanic ostinato. Happily, the Allegretto grazioso ushers in a rustic repose, although perhaps a mite exaggerated in the Stokowski rendition.  The woodwind sonorities – particularly the Philadelphia oboe, Marcel Tabuteau – enjoy a pert sense of attack, and strings alternately bask in broad chords and brisk, short notes.  The tricky metrics of the finale daunt Stokowski not at all, and the music romps forward, the oboe prominent among pizzicato strings.  Despite various false starts and stops, the music achieves a heroic impetus, finally allowing the Philadelphia trombones a D Major fortissimo that well disperses the primordial angst that so besets the composer’s psyche.

The 1885 Fourth Symphony of Brahms combines intellectual refinement and an austere intimacy, buttressed by a masterful sense of form.  The music resists an easy popularity, depending on the inner ear’s appreciation of polyphony and inter-linking motifs based on melancholy thirds.  Stokowski engages the first movement Allegro non troppo in more blatantly “romantic” terms than he had in the Second Symphony, employing the portamento in the lulling ebb and flow we often associate with Willem Mengelberg, but less broad. Obert-Thorn notes that the recording venue, a Camden, New Jersey church, suffers sonic constriction and a lack of reverberation the restoration engineer has had to supply.  As Stokowski moves through the development, the pace and urgency increase, with the vital attacks in the strings and winds having become more pronounced.  The progressive sense of variation and emotional layering, “stretto,” becomes vivid, insistent, even tragic as Stokowski drives the coda to a resolute and irresistible conclusion.

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

The Andante moderato in E Major evinces a subtle sense of color between the horns and winds, a sense of emotional ambiguity in muted hues.  We feel a sad march in its burgeoning stages, until the music opens into a broad sea of nostalgia, emphasized by the Philadelphia’s sliding strings.  Sometimes the dotted figures assume a “precious” character, almost too dainty for the vigor of the performance.  The cellos and violas sing out another plaintive theme, a variant on the march motif.  The emotion has become expansive, the tympani’s undergirding a tragic grandeur.  The horns and strings engage in a fierce fugato, as tormented as it is learned.  The martial utterance has dignity and resolve but no mirth. We feel as though the composer were taking the long view of a life, luxurious as it had been pervaded by regret. As an emotional foil, the C Major Allegro giocoso proffers a scherzo in athletic terms, ripe in colors provided by the piccolo and triangle. We feel the recorded space constricting the power of the temporary revel, since we know the composer’s strategy for the final movement could hardly be more severe, confining his personal, flaring passions into the artifice of a passacaglia and 32 variations and coda.

Brahms chooses a motif taken from the Bach cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich – come hither to me, Dear Lord for Whom I long – which he evolves as a series of orchestral character sketches, a huge, contrapuntal necklace ornamented by rich, individual pearls.  Despite Stokowski’s penchant for a brisk, virtuoso reading, the slower variants – especially the flute solo – enjoy a salon luster concentrated intimacy.  The winds and strings extend the moment into the brass, which soon catapults with a tragic frenzy to its foregone conclusion. The opening eight notes of the Bach chorale reassert themselves with demonic, uncompromising fury. The power of the reading remains, despite sonic qualifications, and Obert-Thorn has made seamless splices to achieve an artistic whole.  But as for period recordings, I must still prefer my Koussevitzky and Walter realizations of this epic victory of mind and musical matter.

—Gary Lemco


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