Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Comparison of Recordings of Brahms: Symphony #1

We're going to put in to practice the comparison exercise I talked about in our last post by comparing a new recording of Brahms' First Symphony (this one part of a 3-CD collection of the complete symphonies of Brahms performed by conductor Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1989) to the original recording that I profiled back in February (which was a 1983 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic).
Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
I can't do justice to describing what an absolute pleasure and a great learning experience this process was. Two wonderful hours flew by while I listened to each of these symphonies back to back, taking notes all the while. Let's get right into the listener notes.

Listener notes for Brahms Symphony #1 (Philadelphia Orchestra):
1) A general (and extended) comment on the tone of the overall recording: the Philly symphony recording was more sedate and acoustically darker (almost as if somebody had turned down the treble), while the Berstein/Vienna Philharmonic recording is much brighter in tone and far more theatrically performed (well, it is Leonard Bernstein after all).

While Philly's conductor Riccardo Muti stands back and lets the music speak for itself, Bernstein takes many more liberties with the score. A simple example is the use of tempo: Bernstein is all over the place with tempo, a technique when used appropriately can convey powerful emotion to the listener. When overused, however, it can make a symphony sound like a John Williams score. I never noticed the extent to which Bernstein pushes things here until I heard Muti's less theatrical performance.

In fact, listening to the one CD gives you the impression that Muti just stands there on the conductor's podium, under complete control, while Leonard Bernstein flaps, flops and gesticulates, trying to extract every last drop of feeling out of his orchestra. When you think about how Bernstein mumbles the melodies to himself on this disc, it makes you think that he's conducting in a reverie state and couldn't dial back his theatricality even if he wanted to.

I'd hazard a guess that Bernstein's approach probably sells more tickets, but it doesn't necessarily make for a superior performance.

2) The intro to Brahms' First Symphony is one of the more foreboding in romantic-era classical music. The darker sound of the Philly recording really shows this off.

3) There's a french horn player who is playing too loud (either that or they miked him up too much), and his out of control playing is a distraction. We'll hear a bit more about him in note #6 below.

4) There are some instruments that can really make or break a symphony, and in Brahms' First, the oboe is definitely one of them. Listen to the oboe solos in the first and second movements, and you can tell that the Philadelphia Orchestra has a good one. If you don't have an extremely talented oboe player on your roster, you can never be a well-regarded orchestra.

5) However, Philly's woodwind section isn't perfect. Listen to the descending and ascending chords in the final minute of the first movement and see if you can hear the out-of-tune clarinet in there.

6) Note at 6:55 in the second movement, when the principal violin and the principal french horn play counterpoint melodic lines together. Unfortunately, they're not in tune with each other. Both musicians are probably thinking, "why should I blend with him? He's the one who's off-key."

But it's also possible that they can't really hear each other, as the french horns typically sit quite far away from the principal violinist on a typical concert hall stage. This raises an interesting question: whose job is it to blend these two instruments when they can't--or won't--blend themselves?

Uh, it's the conductor's job. Muti misses a chance to get this right. Note that in the Bernstein version of this symphony, the two musicians are in tune and the french horn player plays his part much more softly, subordinating himself to the violinist.

7) Finally we get to the fourth movement and my favorite passage, at 3:57, where trombones softly play the key theme. This was the one part of the Bernstein disc that sorely disappointed me. I could hardly bear the anticipation.... and... and... yessssss, they nailed it. Phew.

8) An example of a (small) part I never noticed before in this symphony until I listened to an alternate recording: When the strings play the key melody at 8:55 in the fourth movement, listen for the soft "meep, meep" of the oboe in the background. In the Bernstein recording (at about 9:49 in the fourth movement), that same part is there, but it's almost completely inaudible. This little throwaway part is almost Haydn-like in its facetiousness, and I would never have expected Brahms to have the sense of humor to put something like this into his very first symphony.

9) Also note that the fact that in Bernstein version, the meep-meep part comes up nearly a full minute later than in the Philly Orchestra version. That time difference helps quantify the substantial liberties Bernstein takes with this symphony. Again, I'd never know the difference unless I took time to compare his drawn-out and gesticulatory performance to a recording where the symphony is played "straight." Which version would you prefer?

10) Finally, let's pick on Philly's trumpet section a little bit. In one of the fourth movement's most gripping climaxes (at 16:09 in the Philly recording), you simply can't hear the trumpets at all. They should be absolutely unloading out over the entire orchestra, as they do in the Bernstein version (occurs at 16:41). Eat some Wheaties, guys!


Anonymous said...

I'm touched by your thoughtful treatment of some of the most profound music in the culture. I thought only I would compare notes of great orchestras playing the greatest composer. (I'm a Brahms fanboy...can you tell?)

Daniel said...

Thank you for your positive vibes! Glad you are enjoying my blog.