Fritz Busch conducts BRAHMS = Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68; Symphony No. 2 in
D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98; Tragic Overture, Op. 81; Naenie, Op. 82 – New York Philharmonic Orchestra/ Statsradiofoniens, Denmark/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Fritz Busch – Pristine Audio PASC 570, 2 hrs 25:36 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
A pupil of Fritz Steinbach, conductor Fritz Busch (1890-1951) assumed the mantle of the great Brahms acolytes, even as early as 1909, not yet out of his teens, performing Brahms in his concerts. The C Minor Symphony (1 February 1942) from Carnegie Hall delivers a potent, darkly hued reading of great weight and dramatic thrust, from the opening, menacing Un poco sostenuto to the richly textured second movement, Andante sostenuto. I am particularly moved by the Busch sense of focus, set on the periodic rendering of motifs as they accumulate to the effect of an ongoing edifice. Busch extracts a lyrical, melancholy beauty from the New York Philharmonic strings and winds; the second movement, perforce, asks the concertmaster – might it likely be Mishel Piastro? – to contribute his especial resonance. The bright tempo and lift of third movement in its five-bar phraseology moves with a pace that somewhat urges the grazioso to an uncanny vehemence. The trumpet work and insistent pizzicato bring us, da capo, to the outer allegretto, but our sense of anything like repose has been invaded by the looming shadow of the Beethoven Ninth, which has imposed itself upon us from the outset.
The opening of the last movement Adagio enjoys a tonal spread that might pass for Bruckner. The transition becomes quite manic in its robust stretti, only relenting for the cloud-dispersal of the French horns. The Black Forest reveals its moody, bucolic beauty, especially in a fervent flute part. Having prepared us for the ensuing, all-too-familiar Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, Busch launches into the confident swagger of the once-more majestic theme, which he will develop in its sonata-form with unsentimental, driving force. The interior work from flute, horns, winds, and strings moves us as much conourby lyrical infusion as by the momentum of the conductor’s will. The last pages mightily establish this rendering literally in a class by itself, thoroughly inflamed with a passion and visceral clarity that warrant much rehearing. The performance clearly proves less of Bruno Walter than of Toscanini, who likewise read Brahms through the Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916) eyepiece.
The two briefer Brahms pieces from Denmark come from a rather fertile period, here 7 September 1950; but Busch had already worked with Kathleen Ferrier in 1949 Copenhagen to produce a finely honed Alto Rhapsody. The Second Symphony included in this set comes from 20-21 October 1947. The Tragic Overture in D Minor itself proceeds with that sense of periodic architecture, with sensitive work in the horns and strings. Much of its internal unity seems to derive from elements in Beethoven, whether from the Fifth Symphony or the Coriolan Overture. Despite the fluctuations of mood and tempo, Busch imparts an organic unity to the work, asking trombones and horns to complement the decidedly anguished, jolting melos of the strings.
The 1881 Naenie takes its source from Schiller, the immediate impetus for the lament, the death of a dear friend of Brahms, Anselm Feuerbach. The grim fact that “even Beauty must perish” haunts the piece, set in indirect reference to three mythical, Greek settings: Orpheus in his attempt to retrieve Eurydice; Aphrodite’s sad realization of the death of Adonis; and the goddess Thetis’ thwarted efforts to save son Achilles. Producer and recording editor Andrew Rose has reconstructed the Busch performance, given its incomplete state from the Daish Radio Concert Hall. For Brahms, as for Busch, to have the living lament the beloved dead ensures a kind of immortality, since to go down to Orcus unsung means having been erased from the Book of Life.
The Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a perennial Busch favorite among the Brahms symphonies, proceeds, Allegro non troppo, with a warmly lustrous patina, a devotional sense of the humanity that lies within its bucolic or pantheistic ethos. The contrapuntal gestures retain both their clarity and their distinct contribution to the dramatic tension of the development section. The rocket figures light up the Brahms landscape, only to retreat in an effusion of lyrico-dramatic paeans to Nature. The sense of transition occurs with grace, subtlety and refinement, the mix of strings, tympani, horns, and winds eminently compelling.
The tenor of the Danish bassoons and cellos in the Adagio non troppo finds a wonderfully resonant response in the horn section. Each of the movement’s three themes receives due articulation, studied, alert, and eminently lyric. The subtle shifts in syncopated rhythm and accent flow easily, assuming a power and expressive force through a series of colors and instrumental layering. The music at one point becomes a kind of siciliano, then a waltz, then a magnificent hymn in modal harmony. Truly inspired oboe work sets the tone for the Allegretto grazioso, the plucked strings soon moving in agitated, scampering motion against the winds and horns. The two trios proffer alert, rhythmically buoyant gestures. All the while throughout the frisky often turbulent finale, Allegro con spirito, we have been awaiting a clear declamation of D Major; and, when Busch has his trombones announce the tonic, the fortissimo could not be more emphatic.
The E Minor Symphony under Busch in Vienna (15 October 1950) enjoys a directness of line, an immediate sense of etched pathos that manages to impel its tragic grandeur forward without sentimentality. The authoritative pulsation established by Busch in the opening Allegro non troppo sets the rising and falling thirds in a fine symmetry, yet the drama does not succumb to an exercise in stringent, often contrapuntal, architecture. The various choirs of the VPO alertly respond to one another, often harmonized with an earthy, majestic psalmody, to capture the ubiquitous paradox in the Brahms style. The last pages ring with divine fire, a fierce peroration of its own, marked by aroused brass and tympani.
The Andante moderato shifts the tonality to a Phrygian version of E Major, the horns of the VPO betraying a bit of strain. Yet the gentle pulse of the music softens our hearts, especially as the cellos sing out. The music assumes a semi-martial air, only to relent into the Brahms tender capacity for restrained nostalgia. The transparency of texture – even in the most polyphonic passages – Busch elicits from his wind choir proves astonishing, inspiring the horns to play more fervently (and accurately). The last section might appropriately – given the ‘Iberian’ nature of the last movement Passacaglia – be categorized as “deep song.” The boisterous, muscular Allegro giocoso sets Brahms in competition with Beethoven for gruff humor. Busch urges the music frenetically, barely allowing it to breathe until the Trio section, in which the horns invoke once more the Black Forest that marks the C Minor Symphony finale. At the last Brahms pays homage to Bach, directly, having chosen a bass motif from Cantata No. 150, Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, Dear Lord, I crave your nearness. The opening eight chordal beats, Allegro energico e passionato, transform into a mighty sea of 32 variations and coda. Busch pushes the plastic content so hard the form has no chance to sag under its learned weight. After the relatively bucolic flute variant, Busch leans hard, driving the syncopated drama to its extreme, as Brahms stratifies his motifs in often competing gestures, suddenly erupting from moments of false repose. The VPO tympani has become its own cosmic force with which to reckon, while the strings utter a final hymn to the power of an imagination that has harnessed the past to its own purpose.