BRAHMS: The Symphonies – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ William Steinberg – DGG

by | Jun 1, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: The 4 Symphonies; Tragic Overture, Op. 81 – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ William Steinberg – DGG 486 1815 (1/12/22) (3 CDs: 45:06; 66:49; 52:42) [Distr. by Universal] *****:

Conductor William Steinberg (1899-1978) came to lead the Pittsburgh Symphony after his tenure in Buffalo, succeeding Fritz Reiner, who had honed the Pittsburgh orchestra to the degree that it warranted considerable, recorded documentation from Columbia Records. For the Brahms cycle, Steinberg accepted a contract from Command Classics, whose engineer, Robert Fine, had immortalized Mercury’s “Living Presence” series. The Brahms cycle, taped 1961-1965 on magnetic 35mm film stock, took place at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. The initial CD version came by MCA, whose digital process compressed the sound. MCA also omitted the Tragic Overture. The DGG acquisition of the tapes has allowed for a successful remastering process that restores the sonic impact of the original Command Classics vinyls.

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Steinberg always claimed Toscanini and Klemperer his musical icons, and Steinberg honed a clear, smooth, literalist approach that refined the orchestral patina on a par with Karajan’s work in Berlin. The immediate example that comes to mind lies in the warmth of the exquisite second movement of the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto with Rudolf Firkusny for Capitol Records and reissued on EMI. The vinyl incarnation of the Brahms cycle appeared on four LPs, which John Tuska reviewed for Fanfares Mar/Apr 1989 issue (12:4): “If a person were to be coming to these symphonies for the first time, this would be the set with which to begin because it is so straightforward, the musicianship so first-rate.”  My opener of choice, the 1962 Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73, radiates unhurried warmth and elastic girth, despite Steinberg’s not taking the first movement repeat, but neither does Bruno Walter in his recording with the New York Philharmonic. The Pittsburgh brass project a deep-throated resonance to complement the string choirs, and the Allegro non troppo basks in a sunny, bucolic passion of Natural reverence, touched by nostalgia, though the menace of the early timpani has cast some consistent, dark thoughts.

The beauty of the Pittsburgh Symphony cello line sets the tone for the Adagio non troppo in B Major, with no less an effective counter melody from the bassoons at measure 33. Those moments which play as a concentrated woodwind serenade enjoy an especial resonance, as does the step-wise progression in the strings. The middle section, contrapuntal and darkly hued, achieves almost a demonic fervor, until it relents with a blending of impulses into a recapitulation whose secondary theme has been agogically modified.  A brass fanfare announces the extended coda, a richly layered and dynamic conclusion to a movement whose emotions again prove an admixture of bucolic comfort and personal anguish. The third movement, Allegro grazioso in G Major, reverts to an archaic style of minuet marked by pizzicato accompaniment. The sudden appearance of a Presto episode, 2/4, interrupts the idyll with a nervous playfulness. It soon reasserts itself in 3/8, only to subside into the opening minuet, which has become most conciliatory. 

Steinberg gives the sotto voce strings that open the last movement, Allegro con spirito, a bit of an earnest shove, initiating a blazing attack that sets the rest of the movement in festive motion. The ensuing largamente theme in A Major projects muscular force that complements the steamroller pulse Steinberg maintains. The slower tranquillo episode barely contains the momentum, the brass insisting on a pungent reminder of the potential energy Brahms assembles. The recapitulation enters, even faster than initially, and the explosion detonates, the forward velocity about to consume everything, restrained episodes included, until a vital, triumphant energy irradiates a most jubilant conclusion. 

We proceed to the 1961 recording of the Brahms First, completed effort in the form, his 1876 C Minor Symphony, Op. 68. The etiology of this work, now long-familiar, includes various, abortive attempts (of some 20 years) to extend the German symphonic tradition after Beethoven, whose own Ninth Symphony informs much of the Brahms energy. The orchestral mass Steinberg invokes for the first movement Un poco sostenutoAllegro has both clarity and the vigor we know emanates from Brahms’s adjustment to the Beethoven Fifth motif and its now-added melodic impetus. The counterpoints prove rigorous and texturally rich, at once. An auditor familiar with the tradition in German conducting could assign this effectively dramatic first movement to Klemperer. Schuricht, or Abendroth, well within the purview of the conductors competitive with Furtwaengler’s heroic, romantic ethos.

The consolatory Andante sostenuto in E features some lovely moments from the woodwinds and the solo violin that extends the idyll of this songful instance of the composer’s power to translate arioso, vocal impulses into symphonic texture. The pedal points, girded by rich tapestry in strings and French horn, achieve a monumental effect even within their relatively relaxed context. The brief duo of violin and horn enjoys a palpable glow that the strings and winds absorb and expand into a diaphanous reverie that ends the movement. The A-flat third movement, Un poco allegretto e grazioso, provides the first of those orchestral intermezzi that replace the traditional scherzo, until his Fourth Symphony. The shift from 2/4 to 6/8 occurs seamlessly, given the 5-bar phrases that attest to the composer’s desire to manipulate Classical procedure. 

The last movement, opening with another slow introduction as in movement one, sets up a huge C Minor pedal point upon which Brahms can launch his familiar chorale, long noted on its resemblance to Beethoven’s Ninth. Steinberg does not indulge in sentimental reminiscence, however, and his horn call and responsive flute have all of the Black Forest or Alpine sensibility that Wagner himself might require. The gates of the Brahms Valhalla open with a warm C Major pageantry, firm in conviction, orchestral definition, and melodic contour. The force of the string pizzicatos might warrant the price of admission, in themselves. The development section, infiltrated by Brahms polyphony, maintains its dramatic momentum, restating the chorale to good effect, moving with colossal force to the recapitulation and the explosion of the Alpine motif and the Pittsburgh strings fervent ecstasies. The extended coda, with tis rising cascades of string figures, rivals the effect of another of my favorite renditions, that by Eugen Jochum from Berlin. The last pages defy mere verbiage, given their spectacular onrush of jubilant conviction.

Johannes Brahms


The 1883 Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 (1883) stands as a model of economy of romantic expression, much admired by Edward Elgar as a template from which to draw examples in lyric counterpoint. Steinberg’s 1962 performance, from the initial homage to Schumann, with its citation from that composer’s Rhenish Symphony and the motto sequence F-Ab-F to designate the “free but happy” affect that toys with its counter-idea from Joachim, F-A-E, “free but lonely,” rings with virile authority. The oscillation between major and minor modalities and triple and duple metrics, sometimes in waltz rhythm, defines much of the opening movement, Allegro con brio, in its singular ambiguity. Like Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, who did much to champion this passionate score, Steinberg ignores the first movement repeat in favor of forward motion. The Pittsburgh woodwinds, the bassoons particularly, emerge with crisp, articulate energy, and the strings and brass add a noble dimension to the proceedings. At the coda, the music once more swells in possibility with the original motif, only to die away in a romantic haze. 

The second movement, Andante, opens in the manner of a C Major serenade or cassation in clarinets, bassoons and horns, similar to the Brahms of Op. 11. A wind motto announces a secondary tune in darker hues that will lead to some expression of yearning, typical of the Brahms ethos. The 4/4 progression, marked at first semplice, like a folk song, soon acquires a more passionately contrapuntal character, the voices admirable articulate in Steinberg’s reading. The antiphons that work through the movement, too, a call-and-reply character we might associate with high mountains, maintain a thoughtful, wistful character. The third movement, marked Poco Allegretto, presents another Brahms intermezzo whose cello line proves undeniably seductive. Autumnal in feeling, much of this music in C Minor anticipates the mood of the Brahms late piano music. The horn will take up the yearning call after the strings have injected a crepuscular mystery into the context. The musical line, elastic and long-breathed, feels competitive with any of the classic renditions from Toscanini and Karajan, but immaculately warm and resonant in tone. 

The last movement, Allegro, assumes a Beethoven firmness with its F Minor opening, a procession like a determined march capable of explosive energy. Suddenly, a kind of adjusted “fate” motif arises, volcanic in feeling and openly tormented by competing metric impulses. The presence of the sonata-form to hold these emotional surges in check seems hardly adequate. Yet, the music plays out its demons and subsides in agogic variation of its initial rhythm, to the point of establishing a pedal point for the muted violas’ return of the opening F-Ab-F motif that here, in the optimistic coda, reaches a spiritual resolution, a compromise, to the opposed forces that have consumed us for a rapt half-hour.

We depart temporarily to the spa at Bad Ischl in 1880, where Brahms composed two concert overtures, of which Steinberg presents that in D Minor, Op. 81, the “Tragic Overture” in this 1965 recording. With no specific program in mind, the muscular piece  in sonata-form urges us to consider Goethe and Schiller as possible sources for the dark drama, the sturm und drang, that ensues for over 12 minutes. While some consolation appears in F Major, there exist a number of pregnant silences in this score that suggest an unutterable sense of desolation, not far from the world of T.S. Eliot. Steinberg moves the conflict at a brisk pace, his trombones, tuba, and timpani in full Steinberg’concert with the strings, make their presence known; and, despite the dark thrust of the work as a whole, the score achieves a fulsome glow – especially in the Pittsburgh brass – under Steinberg’s hand, on par with my long-cherished reading by Fritz Lehmann with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. 

At last, we turn to the 1885 E Minor Fourth Symphony of Brahms, notable for its valedictory poise and assimilation of grand, even archaic forms, as in the final movement passacaglia. For all of its noble sincerity, the work proceeds in set formulas, moving as a series of sighing, ascending and descending thirds in the first movement, Allegro non troppo, and in confident, Phrygian, E Major harmonies in the second movement, Andante moderato. The emotional anomalies of the first movement, beset by counterpoint and even a tango rhythm, reach a sumptuous climax in the heartily driven coda. The use of a motif from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich—“I long to be near you, Lord,” fuses Baroque practice with the Brahms penchant for idiosyncratic piety, given that he was by nature irreligious. Steinberg’s 1965 performance presents the various, competing influences in Brahms in wonderful, articulate symmetry, a resonant balance in clear, athletic terms. The Pittsburgh strings capture the “old bachelor’s” sense of yearning, even as it sings in its chains like the sea. The third movement, in which Brahms returns after a long hiatus to the scherzo, Allegro giocoso, perhaps in a tone acerbic irony, projects a robust energy, a recollection of the rebelliousness that had first announced itself in his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor years before.  

If we fixate on the warmth of the Pittsburgh string sound in movement one, the Pittsburgh brass and winds speak their piece in the second movement, leading to a poignant song late in the movement, intoned by the Pittsburgh string choir. The movement, in its periodic structure, comes closest to form adapted by his least appreciated contemporary, Anton Bruckner. The ambition, however, seems the same, to present human vulnerability and deep-felt melancholy on an epic scale. The music becomes lyrically martial in winds and strings before transforming into the polyphonic anguish that precedes its most emphatic, tragic utterance and eventual concession to a songful acceptance of fate. 

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889, by C Brasch

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889 by C Brasch

The challenge of the last movement, Allegro energico e passionato, lies in maintaining a taut and unified line in the course of the 32 variations that ensue after the announcement of the Bach impulse. Steinberg’s mighty effort rivals in conception and exceeds in aural power that of Serge Koussevitzky, who first revealed the ”right tempo” to me, then to be followed by an equally convincing Bruno Walter. Steinberg’s is a virtuoso display of extraordinary discipline and emotional sympathy. His flute player, no less than his complementary woodwinds and string members, conveys a great lyric power this Brahms, on the verge of retiring from his role as a creative musician. It would take another wind player, clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, to revive the composer’s enthusiasm for his work. 

How else to express our appreciation to DGG for the return of these extremely sympathetic readings of Brahms by William Steinberg, except to claim their “Command” performance on your part?

—Gary Lemco  

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