Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Carlo Maria Giulini
Brahms recorded in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 6 September 1962; Mozart recorded in the Royal Albert Hall, London on 19 July 1982
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: January 2006
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 76 minutes
Nowadays critics often use the term ‘period performance’ and this would normally refer to the old instruments in use or at least the performers’ understanding of performing methods at the time the music was composed.
This interesting issue from the BBC’s archives certainly presents ‘period performance’, but in this case the term represents the long-accepted style adopted by many central European conductors in the mid-20th-century when conducting the standard classics. In this recording, the Brahms betrays virtually all of the well-worn habits of interpretation with which this work was so often saddled. German conductors in particular tended to adopt these same old traditions of slowing for thoughtful sections, hastening for tuttis and over-emphasising the grand bits.
Sadly, the Italian Carlo Maria Giulini (who died in 2005 aged 91) also does all of these things. Brahms certainly requires a certain amount of eloquence when expounding his fertile melodies: Giulini does far more than that. The richly expressive opening movement often sounds very beautiful under his direction although the music ebbs and flows with unnerving freedom. The most alarming example comes towards the close of the movement. Seventeen bars from the end, Brahms marks the score ‘Meno Allegro’ but Giulini begins to slow down sixteen bars earlier.
The subsequent slow movement, Andante sostenuto, shows another facet of interpretative romanticism since it is taken at a solemn Adagio. In the scherzo-like Un poco allegretto e grazioso, the mid-section becomes so excitable that the return of the main theme has to be markedly slowed in tempo. In the finale the old-fashioned traditional exaggerations are indulged in to the full. A powerfully dramatic slow introduction finds this conductor at his best but when the main part of the movement begins at the entry of the famous melody marked ‘Allegro non troppo ma con brio’, the tempo is so cautious that the great outburst 32 bars later has to push forward at a far greater speed. Inevitably the return of the ‘big tune’ 90 or so bars later has to be pulled back again.
This pattern of indeterminate speed continues until the most controversial moment of all: this occurs during Brahms’s thrilling coda. Between the start of the ‘Allegro non troppo ma con brio’ and the end of the work, Brahms makes only one tempo alteration. This is when he requires the coda to start ‘Più allegro’. One of the most stunning effects engendered by this careful management of speed is that the solemn chorale, which had been played by the brass quietly and mysteriously during the finale’s slow introduction, now becomes a triumphant affirmation played fortissimo at a speed twice increased since the theme’s first appearance: Giulini hauls the tempo to a pace so slow that it is scarcely any faster than that adopted for the first hearing of the tune. Another marked increase in tempo is of course required in order to make sense of the closing bars.
This 1962 recording from the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, though mono, sounds very well with just a slight reticence on the part of the horns. I seem to remember the venue sounding more resonant than this. The question comes to mind: did we really accept such wilful subjectivity of interpretation in those days? Were critics not markedly dissatisfied? Thinking of old recordings of that time or earlier, conductors sometimes performed this work with no more than the occasional acknowledgement of the worn-out traditional tempo changes. I think in particular of Hermann Scherchen and Eduard van Beinum – the thrilling drive of that wonderful chorale at the end of the finale was a glorious moment in both readings.
Turning to the 1982 Linz Symphony, a very different side of Giulini is revealed. This Proms performance is beautifully done. The stereo recording is surprisingly hefty in the bass but although there is not much air around the instruments, the balancing is excellent. The horns and trumpets come through with exactly the right weight and are very well matched with each other in volume. In this work, Mozart makes much use of quiet timpani strokes, especially in the first two movements. So often in recordings this element is lost but here the gentle impact of these instruments is ideal. Giulini’s reading represents the best of ‘big orchestra’ Mozart. To some extent, I am reminded of Karl Böhm who was also expert in revealing this composer by using modern orchestras with sensitivity. Giulini’s slowish tempos are superbly held and there is all the time in the world for subtle shading. In the first movement for example, the lovely arch of the rising and falling violins leading to the repeat is delightfully delicate. The conductor’s ability to give a sense of forward drive whilst never hastening is an admirable aspect of his skill.
It is a little surprising that this mono version of the Brahms should be issued when the conductor recorded the work commercially three times, but the sound is certainly good enough to clarify the many eccentricities of the interpretation and those who respond to wilfully subjective music-making might dare to try this disc knowing that there is an excellent Mozart coupling.