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Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 36 "Linz"
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting
Philharmonia Orchestra
CD Number: BBC Legends 4175-2

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Profil Hanssler PH05021

Review By Max Westler
Click here to e-mail reviewer

  These two recordings celebrate a conductor's lifelong relationship (love affair? obsession?) with the Brahms First Symphony. Carlo Maria Giulini first took up the work in 1957; and forty-one years later, it was on the program of one of the last concerts he ever conducted. Along the way, he made no fewer than three commercial recordings: with the Philharmonia in 1961, the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1981, and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1991.

Though these new releases don't quite give us his first and last thoughts on the subject, they both supplant his previous recordings and provide us with a more accurate picture of what he could do with this work. As interesting as they are, none of the recorded performances provide the kind of incandescent and life-altering experiences I encountered in the concert hall listening to Giulini (and in this case, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) perform the work. Both these performances do.

Made nine months before the live performance preserved on this new BBC Legends release, the 1961 Philharmonia recording is perhaps too affectionate and yielding. Giulini's obvious love of the music makes for many heartfelt moments; but in the end the parts, howsoever wonderfully rendered, don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Clearly the live performance was an attempt to correct the structural weaknesses of the earlier interpretation. In this case, Giulini approaches the symphony with a tight grip; a coruscating, Toscanini-like intensity that brings this great orchestra (and the listener) right to the breaking point.

As exciting as that recording is, the Hanssler disc is to be preferred; for it captures one of the conductor's most fully realized performances, and the best Brahms First we're likely to have from him. Eighteen years of devoted study had brought Giulini so deeply inside Brahms's genius, the conductor was now able to resolve the work's thorny contradictions. Here is a performance that is forceful, and yet utterly transparent; deeply emotional without ever being overwrought. Giulini gives full voice to the symphony's intense lyricism and also to its sense of titanic struggle . His unhurried pacing lets Brahms's long paragraphs unfold in a completely natural way: the music ebbs and flows from one moment to the next with the cumulative power and inevitably of great drama.

When Giulini first took up the post of music director in Los Angeles, there was much talk of a "love feast" between him and the musicians. But I was never convinced. The live performances and the records I heard at the time suggested that the orchestra was giving the conductor what he wanted, but not everything they had. In 1979, the Bavarian musicians might not have been as technically secure as their counterparts in Los Angeles, but here they play with white-hot virtuosity and commitment as if their very lives depended on it.

Before we walk away from the BBC Legends release, let me add that the Mozart Symphony is a substantial filler. Given the success of his Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, it's surprising to learn thatGiulini only recorded two of the symphonies: a pairing of 40 and 41 with the Philharmonia for London. This is a shame: those performances and this one suggest that Giulini was as much at home in the major symphonies as he was in the major operas. Certainly those who know his opera recordings will recognize the same combination of grace and power, delicacy and muscle. This performance may be inauthentic and old-fashioned ("big band" Mozart, as they say), but it is no less successful for being so. For me, this luminous, exquisite, and very moving "Linz" Symphony is worth the price of the disc.

The BBC Legends recording suffers from compression, though the Mozart (from 1982) sounds a lot more vivid than the Brahms. The Hanssler performance was broadcast "live" from a studio without an audience. Though not "demonstration quality," it has both presence and warmth. God bless Hanssler for having captured this great occasion in such realistic sound.

Fans of the conductor will need little encouragement from me to purchase both these discs. For the rest of you, the Bavarian performance should be essential listening. It now joins Klemperer/Philharmonia, Furtwangler/Hamburg, and Bruno Walter with both the New York Philharmonic and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra as one of the preferred versions of this work.

 

Ratings

Guilini/Philharmonia

Mozart

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Brahms First

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Giulini/Bavarian: Brahms

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