BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F, op. 90. Symphony No. 4 in e, op. 98.
London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra; Felix Weingartner.
Pristine PASC334 TT: 67:28.

Sane. I used to fall asleep at concerts during Brahms symphonies. I tried very hard to stay awake, but in the second movements I dropped off, coming to just in time for the finale. Although I had little use for his music, I wasn't completely immune. I tended to like the Sturm und Drang orchestral works such as the First Piano Concerto and the Double Concerto and the a cappella sacred music influenced by Bach. As for the rest, I not only couldn't understand why other people liked Brahms, I couldn't understand why Brahms thought his music would be effective at all. What's more, one of the greatest music critics, George Bernard Shaw, agreed with me, or rather I with him. His essays on Brahms during the 1880s represent the gold standard of musical invective. Notoriously, he called Ein Deutsches Requiem an exercise to be borne patiently only by the corpse. Decades later, however, he graciously admitted his mistake about Brahms, the only mistake, he said, of his entire career. Of course, I too eventually turned around, but I did so through sheer dumb luck. I was listening to a small choral work, the Geistliches Lied for choir and organ, which I had always regarded in the same light as a sentimental parlor ballad not unlike one from Mendelssohn's lesser imitators, when I suddenly realized it was a double canon at the ninth with a free bass (for those of you keeping score at home). Why this fact should have turned me around, I haven't a clue, but I began to hear Brahms in a whole new way. The details which I'd always been aware of took on new, exciting meanings and led me to other discoveries. A whole new catalogue of music and a way of musical thinking had opened up.

At one point, Brahms's reputation as a symphonist stood but little lower than Beethoven's. I suspect, however, that Mahler has overtaken him, at least for now. I dislike handicapping artists past a certain level. It strikes me as more fit for the playground rather than as a serious enterprise -- similar to the arguments you hear in sports bars. Is Mahler better than Brahms or vice versa? Why on earth would anyone care, really?

Pristine continues its heroic work restoring our recorded past to current standards -- acceptable and beyond -- of listening. I doubt many remember Felix Weingartner or have heard much of his work. In his own day, the public considered him a supreme interpreter of the Viennese classics. He was the second conductor (I think Stokowski was the first) to record all the Brahms symphonies. Because of his precision and his lack of excess, listening to Weingartner seemed like getting the inside info from the composer himself, according to contemporary reports. To me, by these recordings alone, clearly Weingartner stood out as one of the best of his time, both technically and interpretively. He not only understands the symphonies' paper architecture, but negotiates Brahms's notorious tempo shifts within them without dropping the narrative thread. I've listened to a lot of Brahms since my epiphany, both in concert and on recording. Of those symphonies that used to numb me, I currently like the Third best. I'm especially fond of Szell's stereo performance with the Cleveland Orchestra -- a taut, electrifying account. However, although these two readings differ in viewpoint, with Weingartner less wound-up than Szell, Weingartner nevertheless moves surely and purposefully, surfing the "oceanic roll" of the symphonic line that marks a real Brahmsian.

The Fourth is even more difficult than the Third. The Third has at least some connection to the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann (especially Schumann's "Rhenish"), although more argumentatively complex. The Fourth, on the other hand, comprises something new, a new lyricism, a new way of moving, of proceeding from point to point, at least in the symphony. Schoenberg probably had this score, among others, in mind when he called Brahms a "progressive." The range of allusion in the symphony amazes, from Bach and Handel to Beethoven and the aforementioned Schumann, as well as to other works of Brahms's late period, especially the 4 Serious Songs, which although following the symphony, nevertheless put words to the primary motif of the first movement: "O Tod, wie bitter bist du" (O Death, how bitter you are). We can't say the motif means that in the symphony, but it does strongly suggest a dark character, and indeed, Brahms referred to the score as "tragic." The term goes beyond the inexpressibly sad. It includes the ideas of conflict, of the dismay at watching the high brought low, grandeur, and fortitude or heroism. I may be sad at the thought of my own death, but I can't really regard it as tragic, because nothing sets it apart from a general fate in the ways I described. Jesus's death on the cross is probably archetypically tragic in the West (although Aristotle, the first to define tragedy, most likely wouldn't have thought so). All this has some bearing on a performance. Weingartner gets it, delivering not only the symphony's grandeur, but its considerable idiosyncrasy as well. This account undoubtedly ranks among the best. I like it even more than my idol Szell's.

These performances come from 1938 Abbey Road recordings, about 7 months apart, with the Fourth done first. Andrew Rose, the engineer, describes the original quality as "congested," and he has actually based his restoration on transfers to Columbia LPs. The Third definitely sounds better, but Pristine's really got nothing to apologize for. The surface not only has had its face washed, one actually senses the glory of both of London's premiere orchestras. I can't say how they played for others, but for Weingartner they become what had to have been two of the finest orchestras in either Europe or North America.

S.G.S. (March 2013)