A Crop of Recordings XXIII: Barenboim’s Brahms, Orozco-Estrada’s Strauss, Szell’s Walton and Stravinsky

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Barenboim creating soft edges of non-auditory kind.

Barenboim creating soft edges of non-auditory kind.

BRAHMS Symphonies No. 1-4 ● Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Staatskapelle Berlin ●

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00028948352524 (Streaming audio: 179:38) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=00028948352524

If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.

I was, myself, fortunate to be in the audience for Daniel Barenboim’s New York Philharmonic debut during the 1970/71 season, and there was a soft edge to his take on the Brahms First Symphony even then. I went back twice to hear the program. Barenboim was the first conductor I’d experienced live who slowed down after the finale’s development climax sufficiently to feature the timpani pounding slowly, in reprise of Brahms’s first movement introduction. It was the sort of structurally satisfying thing Furtwängler did and Karajan toyed with on records, but those were the days of fast, driven, Beethoven-like Brahms from the likes of Szell, Toscanini and Steinberg. Barenboim’s oceanic ebb and flow and Wagnerian mood was new to me and seductive, given the fact that his choice of tempos was actually fairly quick, especially for the first movement introduction and allegro and for the famous hymn tune in the last.

Those plastic tendencies remained in place for Barenboim’s 1990s Chicago Symphony cycle, recorded in maturity with a new emphasis on smoothing everything over further, and a burgeoning creativity with percussion. Barenboim’s scherzo in the Chicago Brahms Fourth, for instance, featured a sudden drop in volume followed by a violent convulsion on brass and drums which had the main theme erupting in a frenzy towards the end. And the ending of his Chicago Third was drawn out just enough to suggest a hint of Wagner.

Those tentative deviations from habitual practice have now fully evolved in the Staatskapelle set and are openly expressed as a totality. Brahms is now done 100% Barenboim’s way. Tempi are fractionally slower than before. But each timpani roll/brass dovetailing with these performers is now a carefully designed theatrical thunderclap which comes and goes with full pictorial mimicry, convulsive at first, then taking its time to fade away, rumble up again and then disappear at its own tempo, melding with winds in unanticipated dreamy coloration. 

Barenboim has created an utterly seamless world of brass and strings. His unusual attention to percussion comes from the fact that it’s the only hard edge to be found in these performances. But the work of the timpanist in the First and Fourth Symphonies alone is worth our price of admission, as unpredictable as the weather, and as beautifully seductive. This is Brahms on stage with an inspired theatrical director. The Second and Third Symphonies are less dramatic and seem perhaps less unusual here, and one can argue that two creamy middle movements in the Third verge on overkill, but there are still many beauties to be enjoyed. The finale of the Second Symphony is galvanic with a huge delay on the last chord, and though Barenboim finds a great deal of darkness in the symphony, given the lingering quality of his approach, he has the good sense to skip the first movement repeat. He skips the the First Symphony’s double exposition, as well, but takes a dynamic approach to using it in the Third. It all works–if you grant Barenboim the validity of his approach.

There are three ways to listen to Brahms Symphonies, I’d argue. You can hear Beethoven in them and try catch his spirit. You listen for hammer and thrust. Or you try to find something Italianate and light in the seriousness, “South German Brahms” they call it. That’s the middle way. Think Thomas Hengelbrock and his NDR set. Or you give in to the Black Forest lurking in every German’s DNA and transform the symphonies into a cross between Wagner and Debussy, to be experienced in the slowly shifting half-light somewhere between mystery and misery. Guess which one we have here! But it is done to perfection.

This release comes to us as a studio recording from the new Gehry/Toyota Saal Pierre Boulez in Berlin, built at Daniel Barenboim’s direction and large enough for full orchestra only without an audience, but proving itself here a luscious, smooth-sounding venue, rich, deep and without harshness, ideal for the close embrace of this conductor’s romantic approach. Mr. Barenboim used to be criticized for imitating Furtwängler. These days that would be an unfair comparison. He is an institution, himself, now.  Make of it what you will.


Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

STRAUSS Eine Alpensinfonie ● Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra ●

PENTATONE PTC 5186628 (Streaming audio: 55:21)


Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, once wallflower at the dance, has become the plus-sized model everyone wants to date. That’s where one better drop the imagery, if we go on to say there are really no bad performances, which seems to be the case. I am happy to welcome this new one from Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, recorded in the Alte Oper, which always seems to deliver a nearly ideal soundstage for the microphones. It certainly has in this instance. The performance dates from 2016 and appears to be the edited version of a wonderful-sounding live video already available on YouTube, smoothly balanced  for mid-hall perspective with an unusually clear organ sonority and excitingly resonant percussion. Among the many versions I have heard, this one reminds me the most of fresh air.

This most pictorial and cinematic of Strauss’s orchestral works is in one sense easy to conduct: you follow instructions, and there’s the result. It doesn’t trade in any emotion but fear, awe, and a touch of nostalgia on the way home. There is no love music, no humor, no irony. There’s no way to play games with tempo. There’s no such thing as a “fast sunrise.” There are no horses or armies to charge the peak at a gallop. It’s as tight that way as a ballet score. This probably explains why so many recorded versions of the work sound so alike.

There are differences, though. If you play the piece fast enough, as Vladimir Jurowski does in his recent LPO release, you can eliminate the pictorial part and make the music about swift interior emotions. At the other end of the spectrum, one can listen to the Vienna Philharmonic under Previn on Telarc or Thielemann for DGG and swoon at the sheer beauty of that inimitable orchestra’s gold and velvet sonority. Orozco-Estrada delivers a lovely middle-ground of vivid description, transparent moving parts, healthy forward motion and gently moving nostalgia as the night falls. He’s actually a minute or two longer than average, more sentimental than Previn, but a slow wind-down from an exciting climb and storm are beautifully judged. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony plays gleamingly. You can’t really ask for more. This has become a favorite.


George Szell

George Szell

WALTON Symphony No. 2 STRAVINSKY Firebird: Suite (1919) ● George Szell, conductor; Cleveland Orchestra ● SONY CLASSICAL 886447032107 (Streaming audio:46:49)


Here at long last is George Szell’s punchy 1962 LP pairing of Stravinsky and Walton, released intact with the original orange and black Epic cover featuring Szell and Sir William poring over the music. Szell’s performance of this symphony, long unavailable in the USA, only recently came to light in Japan paired with his CBS recording of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis and Walton’s Hindemith Variations. I reviewed it in depth in Fanfare 41:5. But this is the original item, the first commercial recording of Walton’s Second Symphony ever made, sweetened at the time with Szell’s Stravinsky, however tartly, to attract an audience.

We are fortunate that Szell and Walton were a good match, and that Stravinsky, added to the mix, made for a triumvirate of virtuosity. The LP put Walton’s new symphony, originally received with indifference by the British public, on the map. It’s a “wow” of a release even today, with a declamatory passacaglia finale that would challenge any brass section. This program remains a tribute to the astonishing precision of the Cleveland Orchestra of that day, and the combination of early Stravinsky and late Walton, tossed off so easily and gleamingly here, reminds one how much these two composers actually had in common. Hidden within Stravinsky’s burgeoning dryness was Rimsky-Korsakov, after all, and tucked away behind boudoir doors inside Walton’s Stravinsky-isms you might find Puccini. They sort of meet in the middle here. Of course, what one notices most in both pieces is the drop-dead accurate hits of brass players at high speed and the amazing accuracy of Szell’s string passagework. In the Infernal Dance, it’s like being hit by propellers.

One always wonders what Szell would have sounded like in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but this conductor secretly was uncomfortable with changing rhythms and avoided the piece. He even stayed away from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben for the same reason. But he manages Firebird well here, if with minimal rubato and with extremely discreet use of the bass drum. (That may be partly due to recording limitations of the day). The sound here is otherwise well laid out and undistorted. Epic almost always got good results in Severance Hall. The murky rumble with which the ballet begins is delivered with gobsmacking delineation, as if each bass player were on a precision timer. You do wonder at times if Szell’s brain were designed by Patek Philippe. But have a listen. This is history. And it sounds better than a Timex.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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