Feature LP Review – Oistrakh|Brahms|Klemperer; Brahms|Szell; Strauss|Szell

Written by: Rob Pennock

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D, Op.77

David Oistrakh (violin), Orchestre Nationale de la Radiodiffusion Français, Otto Klemperer

Recorded at the Salle Wagram, Paris, 17-19th June 1960,
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: SAX 2411
⭐⭐⭐⭐

Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell

Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, 1 & 2 March 1957
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: BC1010
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Richard Strauss – Sinfonia Domestica, Op.53

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell

Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, 10 January 1964
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: MS6627
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Brahms was David Oistrakh’s first western recording of the work, a first label copy of which will set you back a few hundred pounds. The performance is big, the rubato and tempo changes entirely natural, the intonation immaculate. But, while both he and Klemperer weave some beautiful melodic lines, the orchestral playing isn’t brilliant and it all sounds rather laboured.

A blue and silver first label was used for comparison; on Speakers Corner the overall balance is only slightly more forward, there is more transparency and definition. The pay-off is a slight loss of fullness, which particularly affects the string tone, but this is infinitely superior to the various rather sad CD remasterings that have appeared (although the High Definition Tape Transfer DSD128 is in a different class).

The Szell is in a different league. Here the introduction is fast, the chords incisive, the timpani crash out, and in the Allegro he drives forward with every sforzando in place, but isn’t afraid to relax for the second subject. In the eloquently sung Andante the woodwind surpass themselves; Szell doesn’t hang around in the Allegretto, and the Trio is a tempo. Unsurprisingly the finale is a tour-de-force of seething energy and orchestral virtuosity; indeed you will probably never hear it played better.

This 1957 performance is not to be confused with the 1966 recording that also appeared on British Columbia. For comparison a first label Epic LP was used. Being solid-state the Speakers Corner is slightly more forwardly balanced, and there is greater clarity, so the timpani are even more audible. Both capture the svelte Cleveland string sound and highly distinctive woodwind, although the original is more tube-like. Nevertheless, they are rare so this is the obvious first choice for all lovers of great Brahms conducting.

Only a megalomaniac such as Richard Strauss could have written a sprawling quasi-symphony that documented his relationship with his family. A successful performance needs to hold the works disparate elements together, and Szell and his magnificent orchestra do just that, seguing effortlessly between the family’s themes, Scherzo, Adagio, and the bombastic Finale, with vividly characterised woodwind, powerful brass and beautifully refined string playing.

A first label 2-eye U.S. pressing was used for comparison; the overall balance has moved forward on the Speakers Corner LP, but orchestra has greater weight, impact and presence, if slightly less sparkle. Both clarity and definition are good as opposed to spectacular, and neither has an extended dynamic range, but that is down to the master-tapes, and as you don’t have to worry about condition or availability, the Speakers Corner disc becomes the obvious first choice.

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