George Szell – Brahms Symphony No. 3, Dvorak Symphony No. 8 – Pristine Audio

by | Nov 15, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 – Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ George Szell – Pristine Audio PASC 66 (67:00) [www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

Editor and remastering engineer Andrew Rose here turns to the 3-4 September 1951 recordings by George Szell and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and issued originally on CD by Philips. Rose explains in his informative note that Decca at the time had begun only its second year of LP production, and that the recording partnership of John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson had not quite refined their technique, still committed to the 4-minute duration of taping performances that had marked the 78rpm era of recorded sound. The faults extended into the microphone placements and balances, leading critics to dismiss the Brahms and Dvorak readings as “brusque and heartless.” Rose can justly claim that his patented XR process has adjusted imbalances and restored pitch frequencies to their proper function and effect.

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889, by C Brasch

Portrait Johannes Brahms,1889
by C Brasch

We begin with a virile, propelled reading of the 1883 Brahms Third Symphony, a tightly unified score whose opening motif has much in common with Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. Szell hurtles forward, the F-A-F motif swirling in its major and minor modes, athletic and passionate, by turns. With the French horn entry, we receive a strong sense of the Black Forest, the Rhine River, and any and all bucolic gestures in the dramatic progression. The competition between triple and duple meters plays more as a fruitful rivalry, leading to a potent climax, reasserting itself with pungent authority in the counterpoints of the recapitulation. Szell’s coda resonates with a controlled sense of thematic closure.

The second movement Andante remains among this reviewer’s favorite moments in the Brahms symphonic oeuvre, beginning as a wind serenade capable of exploding into passionate melancholy. Its secondary theme will reappear in the last movement. The initial, first-movement motto, now become more the F-A-flat-F version of frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”), assumes a powerful degree of anguished intimacy. The melancholy continues in the third movement Poco allegretto, but a gentleness pervades its serenade contours that Szell molds with the very “heart” former critics found wanting. Once more, the French horn figures prominently in persuasive melos of the music’s perennial charm. The Allegro finale has often been cited for its unsubtle incorporation of the Beethoven “fate” motif, but its power – in a well-wrought F Minor – lies in its dynamic contrasts, the call-and-response that leads to a bustling, martial call to arms. The Concertgebouw brass and timpani emerge inflamed, while the strings jostle in antagonistic syncopation. Yet, the mortal storm resolves itself into Hamlet’s “dew,” a murmur of the Concertgebouw viola section, as the music loses its punitive aggression and opts once more for an autumnal serenade guided by its opening impulse, here resigned to a less than calamitous resolution.

Szell always has a warm heart for the music of Antonin Dvorak – as he had for Mozart –  and the 1889 Eighth Symphony receives its bucolic and pantheistic, full measure of devotion. The opening Allegro con brio does reveal a fair share of minor-key and darkly-hued, martial digressions, despite its upbeat, optimism. A fine solo flute part and richly hued cello line urge us to glory in, rather than sulk, in Nature’s shifting temperaments. The trumpet work at the coda warrants the price of admission. The subsequent Adagio, too, juxtaposes moody contrasts, from a warm, fertile string line to Wagnerian allusions of militancy as realized by a rustic band. A veiled intimacy pervades the atmosphere of this reading, a wistful nostalgia, here realized with the same care and instrumental articulation in winds, strings, and timpani that Vaclav Talich elicits from his Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The E-flat idyll suddenly groans into a stormy but temporary C Minor, and we wonder if the storm from Beethoven’s Pastoral has moved into Bohemia.

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

The lovely Allegetto grazioso – Molto vivace blesses us with a bucolic waltz that sachets with a haunted lilt. This country music resonates, despite its minor-key intrusions, with an optimism of sparkling joie de vivre, confirmed by the spirited music of its woodwind-laden coda. It was conductor Rafael Kubelik who quipped that Bohemian trumpets announce an invitation to the dance!  The last movement music, Allegro non troppo, proceeds as a hearty theme and variations, a form Dvorak has well mastered in his Symphonic Variations, Op. 78. Fellow composer and aficianado Johannes Brahms could well appreciate Dvorak’s passing use of counterpoint. The Concertgebouw flute returns to initiate a hefty, military variation that assumes resolute power in Nature’s grandeur. An extended moment of serene meditation precedes the volcanic and virtuoso eruption of the coda, reminding us of the Yeats query, how can we know the dancer from the dance?

—Gary Lemco

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