Classical Reissue Reviews

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Ov.; Symphony Nos. 2 & 4; Piano Concerto No. 2 – Elly Ney, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Berlin State Opera Orch. (Op. 98)/ Max Fiedler – Pristine Audio

Historic Brahms performances by a "living witness" to that composer's style, though less "authentic" than often startlingly original in energetic conception.

Published on November 25, 2012

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Ov.; Symphony Nos. 2 & 4; Piano Concerto No. 2 – Elly Ney, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Berlin State Opera Orch. (Op. 98)/ Max Fiedler – Pristine Audio

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – Elly Ney, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Berlin State Opera Orch. (Op. 98)/ Max Fiedler – Pristine Audio PASC 363 (2 CDs) TT: 2:19:46 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Conductor Max Fiedler (1859-1939), along with conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), has come to be known as a Brahms interpreter uncommonly close to the tradition the composer himself embodied. Unfortunately, Steinbach left no recorded legacy, though conductors Adrian Boult and Arturo Toscanini claimed him as a powerful influence on their Brahms performances. Pristine, however, through the restoration efforts of Mark Obert-Thorn, resurrects the 1930-1940 mostly Grammophone shellacs that reveal to us Fiedler’s idiosyncratic vision of Brahms, a willful and often immensely energized Brahms of power and conviction.

Historians often argue that Fritz Steinbach took a relatively conservative approach to the Romantic repertory, and as such influenced the classically-minded Felix Weingartner. Fiedler’s more liberal, metrically-subjective approach cannot claim the same “authenticity,” but it certainly provides a specific atavistic realization of the Brahms scores that communicates warmth and spontaneity of feeling. The Academic Festival Overture (rec. 1931) provides an instant case in point: athletic, driven, and prone to sudden advances and retreats in tempo that must be felt as liberal responses to the Brahms ethos that wants to break free of the composer’s own emotional restraints. We find similar “deviations” from the letter of the composer in Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, without our necessarily censuring their efforts.  Besides, Fiedler, too, often releases inner voices and harmonic counterpoints that others bypass or elide, strictly to emphasize melodic continuity.

The D Major Symphony (rec. 1931, for Polydor), among the composer’s sunniest scores, enjoys wonderful forward motion and persuasive sympathy. Fiedler credited Hans von Bulow as his own model for the shaping of the Brahms periods, but the resonant colors Fiedler achieves strike me as singularly his own. The long arches that no less emphasize the resilience of the interior contrapuntal phrases seem a cross between Walter and Toscanini; when the luftpausen and rubati apply, we move closer to the Brahms world that Willem Mengelberg bequeathed us. The Adagio generates a “genial melancholy,” if that is not too paradoxical. The sudden storm in the midst of reflection attains some vividly lyric outpourings by strings and winds in Fiedler’s Berlin Philharmonic. The Intermezzo enjoys a plastic transparency that lightens the mood until it, too, undergoes a brief moment of passion in the midst of otherwise bucolic musings. The robust elan of the last movement Allegro con spirito rather basks in the tempo adjustments Fiedler imposes in the course of its lyric outpourings. Fiedler graduates the snarling and darkly grumbling lower voices so they soon ascend, ineluctably, to an explosion of joyful ardor, perhaps a consciously volatile rebuttal to Hugo Wolf’s criticism that Brahms could not exult.

Fielder’s approach to the Fourth Symphony (rec. 1930 for Grammophone, but here taken from American Brunswicks) urges its monumental dignity, its gloomy Spartan nobility. Fiedler rocks the rising and falling thirds with discrete moments of metric tugging, affecting the essentially lyrical effluvium surrounded by an excess of “learned” tissue. On the other hand, few conductors have brought out the Schubert influence, the country laendler element, with such thoughtful affection. The deliberately maestoso coda that suddenly leaps forward suggests a sleeping tiger hiding among contrapuntal vines.  Equally monumental, the Fiedler Andante confirms the opinion of Richard Strauss, who called it “a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights.” The sheer melancholy warmth of the BSOO cello line warrants the price of admission.  This remains a sturdy, passionate account by any standard. The muscular Allegro giocoso declares itself a scherzo with no apologies, the colors intensely accented and driven with hearty vigor. Fiedler imbues the last movement passacaglia with solemn majesty, careful to underline the irregular agogics and sudden thrusts that impel this ancient form to new relevance. String tremolandi and strettos take on particular impact under Fiedler, and his brass periods convey a heft and pomp we miss from many a glib current recording.

The Brahms B-flat Concerto with Elly Ney (1882-1968) was inscribed in two distinct sessions, of which only the first (1-5 June 1939) actually “belong” to Max Fiedler. Ney’s unhappiness with some takes resulted in a projected date to re-record; but Fiedler’s death in December 1939 forced the producers at Grammophon to hire an uncredited conductor (Alois Melichar?) for the second set (29 April 1940) of takes with Ney. The hybrid (duly noted by Mark Obert-Thorn in the accompanying booklet) still projects a loving vision of the composer’s “symphony with piano obbligato,” lyrical and phrased with ripe, rounded periods and imaginative fire, if not note-perfect digital accuracy. Rather, the pearly play and broad grandeur of the conception of Ney’s playing commands our attention.  The Andante movement features lovely singing dialogues between an intimate Ney and first cellist Hungarian virtuoso Tibor de Machula (1912-1982). Taken quite literally, the last movement plays Allegretto grazioso, of which the first three minutes belongs to Fiedler. For the Brahms connoiuseur, these performances supply precious moments for our sense of stylistic evolution and musicianship in the grand manner.

—Gary Lemco




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