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Symphony 3 / Symphony 8
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This is how Dvorak described his first encounter with the Third Symphony by Johannes Brahms: I can say without exaggeration that this work surpasses his first two symphonies; if not in grandeur and power of conception, then surely in beauty! Its mood is not often found in Brahms. What glorious melodies are there! It is pure love, and the heart soars as one listens to it! And in the same vein, we may add that the last two movements perfectly match Dvoraks Symphony No. 8, even if Brahms once said that Dvoraks Eighth was very well crafted as a symphony, but lacked the most important thing. This contradictory viewpoint makes the present combination particularly informative. Another aspect of this concept album lies in the character of the two works, such as for instance the last movements: Brahms ends with a farewell song- anticipating Mahler, where after solemn, comforting chorales the music falters and dies away and the audience, overwhelmed, remains silent, too. The contrast with Dvoraks last movement is extreme: this is a turbulent movement which begins with fanfares that almost bring us to our feet, and ends triumphantly, showing that Dvorak has entirely freed himself from the shackles of tradition.
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Here is a wonderful new Dvořák Eighth, paired with a Brahms Third of solid intention and slightly less memorable result. This release represents a second installment in Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša’s ongoing series with his Bamberg musicians pairing symphonies by the two composers. In physical form, it’s a two-SACD set. I reviewed the first chapter, containing the Brahms Fourth Symphony and Dvořák’s “New World,” for Fanfare’s May/June 2019 issue (42:5). It was an ambivalent assessment.
Hrůša is an increasingly prominent conductor, and I would argue he gets magnificent results from the Bamberg Symphony, an orchestra I have come to love for its alert spirit and subtle interaction. But he is a straight-arrow who doesn’t always let go. Originally formed in 1946 by German musicians expelled by a new government from German-occupied Prague, this orchestra features at its best richness of sonority, high spirits, lovely quiet when needed and marvelously nimble brasses and woodwinds. Indeed, I would argue the musicians approach Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony here with a born sense of intuition. Under this conductor, they sound more Czech than German, and that’s all to the good.
Hrůša seems able to let them play their hearts out in the music, and they do. This is a Dvořák performance of perfect pace and high energy, filled with the tiny joyous pushes and pulls which can be elicited by a conductor in the right mood—but never taught. It makes you fall in love with the piece all over again, from gentle, graceful, waltzing strings, satiny as a feather, to trumpets which cut and slither just right, to clarinets and flutes with a seductive wriggle where you least expect it. I can’t think of a dull moment to make my mind wander. There’s a tiny touch of beauty in every bar. I’m smitten.
Try as hard as I may, though, I can’t quite feel the same way about the otherwise fine Brahms Third performance which keeps the Dvořák company. Hrůša turns earnest on us and becomes George Szell, you might say. At 39 minutes, his take on the Brahms Third is fully in the mainstream for tempo, but not marked by the sparks which fly in his Dvořák. Everything is rich and pretty and nicely turned, but textures are thick, and the woodwinds, for all their beauty of intention, don’t have the same ability to soar.
I don’t entirely blame the conductor, though, except for lacking a sense of daring to be different. Tudor’s sound is beyond reproach, too. I trolled through the first few minutes of about 20 Brahms Thirds on Naxos as an experiment, and almost all of them seemed weighed down by gravitas. You would be hard put to close your eyes and tell them apart. Every so often you find one, like the 1963 Karajan DG performance, which seems to glide along like Fred Astaire and make formality sing, or Bruno Walter’s Columbia Symphony version, which is nearly violent. But for the most part, conductors make the music less interesting than it might be. Is funereal turgidity what Brahms really wanted from Allegro con brio?
Thomas Dausgaard has recorded a swift performance on BIS with his Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and it fires up very much like Dvořák, with real punch and excitement. Dausgaard has only 39 players to work with, and sometimes you want more. It sounds almost adolescent. Brahms, himself, might have had 70 at his disposal in the 1880s. But something tells me he would have expected the piece to go about as fast as Dausgaard takes it, with much more light and shade. I wish more conductors would try. Meanwhile, climb into a time capsule with Hrůša, and you will feel beautifully preserved.
Both Szell and Karajan were in their fifties when they recorded their performances whereas Jakub Hrůša who conducts this new Tudor CD is in his late thirties. Szell and Karajan were conducting two of the greatest world orchestras, with incomparable and incisive string sections, whereas the new performances are with the Bamberg Orchestra. This has its origins in the old German Opera of Prague – in the late 30s, after the Nazi government had control of Prague, the opera and its orchestra were disbanded and its conductor, Karl Rankl, left for England, where he recorded Dvořák's 'New World' and Brahms's Fourth Symphonies with London Orchestras for Decca . The Nazi Culture chief, Goebbels, arranged for a new orchestra to be founded in Liberec (Reichenberg) the capital of the part of Czechoslovakia which had been ceded to the Reich, using the players from the German Theatre Orchestra. Then a year or so later he hysterically ordered the Reichenberg orchestra to go back to Prague, where it was named the German Orchestra of Prague, as a balance to the great Czech Philharmonic. In 1945 the orchestra relocated again with its conductor, Josef Keilberth, to Bamberg. So it has a heritage of both Germany and the Czech lands appropriate to this coupling.
It is - and, judging by old recordings, always was - a very good orchestra with a warm and pleasant tone and balance – similar to the old Vienna Symphony Orchestra of the 50s. The conductor has a straightforward way with both composers, with maybe a few moments of undue emphasis in the Brahms. An earlier Czech conductor, Karel Ančerl, said that when conducting Dvořák with a German orchestra the first thing a conductor has to do was to establish with them how they should not perform it – Hrůša seems to have done that admirably, though perhaps it this case it was less necessary because of the orchestra’s tradition. The excellent German conductor Fritz Lehmann, who recorded the same Dvořák symphony with the Bamberg Orchestra in the 50s, didn’t manage it, but the Czech Martín Turnovský, conducting another Dvořák symphony with them later, did.
Comparing the performances here with the earlier ones, Szell’s incisive performance of the Brahms is supreme, and works well with the Dvořák too, though in that the Bamberg with Hrůša maybe equal them, with some added warmth. Karajan said he was always nervous conducting Dvořák works as he had heard Václav Talich conduct them and felt he could never equal him. Maybe he doesn’t, but it is a good coherent performance, with just a few occasions where Karajan can’t resist adding a nobility or grandeur which isn’t quite there in the music. Karajan is less successful in the Brahms, where the structure is sometimes lost in unnecessarily pointed changes of tempo.
At the time of the Szell performances there were rival performances of each work, by Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca and Talich and the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon. For really supreme performances, listen to those – Böhm achieves a wonderful seamless line throughout the Brahms (he recorded it again later with the same orchestra, but couldn’t quite repeat the magic) which neither Szell, Karajan or Hrůša can quite manage, and, as Karajan said, Talich is just right. Both have have wonderful orchestras.
The older couplings are well recorded for their time, but of course the new Tudor has the advantage of modern recording techniques. The performances are both very good and convey the spirit of the music of each composer.
The presentation of the new CD has some issues. Whereas both Decca issues get the works on one CD, the new set uses a CD for each work, although one would have been enough. There is an interesting discussion printed in the booklet, but orange on white is extremely tiring for the eyes, and the booklet is glued to the box and cannot be separated, which means the trailing box is an awkward encumbrance when you try to read the booklet. This is quite unnecessary and I hope future copies will keep the two separate and print the notes in clear black type.
As is my custom, I listened, for the sake of context, to what competing versions I could round up prior to auditioning this more recent arrival. The last Brahms Third I heard before the big moment was by Eugen Jochum and the London Symphony Orchestra. It was coupled with the Second Symphony, giving the CD a total timing of approximately 79 minutes. The total time of these two CDs comes in around 76:00 and, if I may judge by the price, it’s no “twofer” … and, for better or worse, I can’t merely dismiss the contents of this pair of SACDs since I think these are both quite terrific performances. Aside from the good playing and sound, the inner movements of the Brahms have extended passages where I find myself perceiving a variety of resigned melancholy that I, for better or worse, think of as “autumnal,” though the nearest definition I can find is “characteristic of late maturity—verging on decline,” which isn’t quite what I’m trying to express. Sometimes I think I hear it in Klemperer’s performance, or Barenboim’s, or Celibidache’s, but it’s rare and elusive and may be the product of an overactive imagination. Anyway, of all the recordings I listened to, the only Third I preferred to Hrüša’s was Szell/Cleveland and “autumnal” isn’t part of his musical vocabulary. As for the Dvořák, it’s spirited and incisive, and at least as good as any recording of it that I have ever heard.
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So präsentiert er in dieser Kopplung auch zwei Ansätze, einen ehr schwermütigen, furtwänglerischen Brahms, der sich langsam, aber mächtig steigert und im Finale kurz aber explosiv entlädt. Dem stellt er einen vitalen Powerdvorak entgegen, der von Anfang voller Kraft und Spannung vibriert. Da langt ein junger Dirigent mal richtig in die vollen und schafft auf Anhieb eine Referenzaufnahme.
Die Aufnahmetechniker des Bayer. Rundfunks schaffen in der akustisch brillanten Sinfonie an der Regnitz wieder mal für ein sattes Klangbild - da bleibe ich altmodisch, CD in die Stereoanlage und ab geht die Post, dazu ein hoch intelligentes Interview mit Herrn Hrusa - das ist mir das Geld wert, statt streamerei.
Et à ce titre j'apprécie ce CD.