Brahms: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 2; Academic Festival Overture

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Biddulph
ALBUM TITLE: Max Fiedler Conducts Brahms
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 2; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: Elly Ney (piano), Berlin PO, Berlin State Opera Orchestra
CATALOGUE NO: WHL 003-4 ADD mono
Max Fiedler was 85 years old when he conducted his friend Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto for Elly Ney, ‘the Führer’s pianist’. Even today, that 1939 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Fiedler has much to tell us, through the insightful phrasing and subtle interplay of instrumentalists. Here are the Second and Fourth symphonies, the latter with its rhetorically broadened first movement coda, a mighty gesture and much the sort of thing Furtwängler used to do, especially in Bruckner. Although the first movement of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony was apparently never recorded, we at least get a unique opportunity to sample Furtwängler’s visionary interpretation, with its mystically suspended Adagio and wildly raging finale.

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A more intimate unrest visits three great pre-war singers skilfully declaiming three of Schumann’s song cycles: Gerhard Hüsch as the proud but wounded victim of Dichterliebe, Lotte Lehmann, a profoundly sensual exponent of Frauenliebe und -leben (complete with café-style instrumentations) and Friedrich Schorr stooping down from Valhalla for an intimate Liederkreis, Op. 39. Whereas all three make their respective texts sound like autobiography, a November 1943 performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten did actually coincide with a difficult period in its composer’s career. At the Vienna State Opera, Torsten Ralf portrayed an arrestingly masculine Emperor and Hilde Konetzni a commanding Empress, with a fine supporting cast under Karl Böhm. Koch’s rather dimly recorded set also has excerpts from Die ägyptische Helena (1933) and a very early performance of Daphne (1942).

The most nourishing re-enactment of echt Viennese emotion features the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet, whose supremely accomplished 12-CD survey of Haydn string quartets (48 works in all, taken from Op. 1 through to Op. 77) combines intimacy, warmth and a level of musicianship that lifts these wonderful scores into an elevated realm of musical experience. The players themselves were all members of the Vienna Symphony, although the CD notes tell you nothing about them. The same is not true of Biddulph’s invaluable The Czech Quartet Tradition, where composer Josef Suk plays second fiddle in his own Quartet, Op. 11. The precise context here is the legendary Bohemian Quartet, whose tonal glissades and supple phrasing make the most of Smetana’s First and Dvorák’s American Quartets, while the roughly contemporaneous Prague Quartet are equally cordial in Dvorák’s Opp. 105 and 106. Here documentation by Tully Potter is a virtual dissertation, and a highly readable one at that.

The eastern European connection shifts postwar for a live all-Bartók coupling where Yevgeny Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic propels the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta like an iron fist in a velvet glove, all silky strings and battling percussion. Heard next to Mravinsky, György Lehel and the Czech Philharmonic sound oddly temperate, even though their Concerto for Orchestra is solidly musical and fairly well recorded.

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Hotheads won’t be disappointed by Hermann Scherchen’s reckless account of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Never before has the oft-quoted parallel with Wagner’s Tristan sounded with such freewheeling passion, while an equally animated account of the a cappella Friede auf Erden makes for an instructive textural and stylistic contrast. But thereafter, prepare yourself for a real shock: Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung without the soprano solo. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but it certainly sounds interesting. And if you fancy organising an Erwartung karaoke evening, then here’s your chance.