Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Recorded 30 October 1952 in Konzerthaus, Vienna
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: December 2012
CD No: WIENER SYMPHONIKER
Duration: 46 minutes
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra has, like so many other ensembles, formed its own record label. The first two issues are a new Mahler 1 conducted by Fabio Luisi (available on CD and vinyl) and this archive-raided Brahms First Symphony under Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96), quite simply one of the very greatest of conductors, whose mix of science, sound-appreciation and musical wisdom created some remarkable and deeply affecting and illuminating performances. He made very few commercial recordings, but there are numerous gems to be found in radio-stations’ vaults, many already made available by Deutsche Grammophon (Stuttgart) and EMI (Munich Philharmonic) as well as some others that have been issued without recourse to the conductor’s estate.
This 1952 Brahms 1 is superb, typically fastidious in its preparation (if not without a few mishaps in the performance itself) and full of splendour and drama. Later in life Celibidache would make this symphony a massive statement indeed – as performances with the LSO (in London and Tokyo, privately circulated, and Munich, on EMI, make clear). If his younger self was fairly ‘normal’ in terms of tempo, there is no end of dynamic and expressive subtleties apparent in this Vienna account.
The reproduction starts off less than impressively, with suspicious pitch, fuzziness, and slight discoloration. Once into the Allegro of the first movement there is an improvement in the sound, although there will be further if few moments of pitch insecurity and over-processed timbres; small things, mind you. And, anyway, from the off the performance is compelling, imposing in its beginning, fiery and flexible in the first movement proper and fluently spacious in the Andante; Celibidache had a knack of never losing the line, even with the slowest of tempos and the longest of structures. He also never neglected inner workings, as the intermezzo-like third movement shows, for the accompanying lines are as living and breathing as the tunes themselves.
Celibidache makes the most of the finale, its dark drama bit-by-bit reaching C major sunlight, Brahms’s long-gestated debut Symphony ending in triumph. It’s an arrival that Celibidache doesn’t lose sight of; yet, for all that – some will find – he offers extremes of tempos that may be thought indulgent however beautifully shaped and played; never mawkish or sentimental though. In the victorious coda he is a little awry in tempo-relationships (adjusted to better effect in the following decades, but altogether smoother than the elephantine atrocities afforded this summation by Bernstein, DG, and Barbirolli, EMI, both with near-neighbours, the Vienna Philharmonic – and two conductors close to my heart, it must be said).
Ultimately, I suppose, this Brahms release is for Celibidache nutcases – guilty – but Wiener Symphoniker is to be congratulated for choosing it as being thoroughly representative of the conductor at this time of his career and also as a probing and often-thrilling explanation of the music. Enthusiastic applause is retained.