Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2. Symphony No. 4
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond; Konstantin Lifschitz (pn); Berlin Concert House O
ORFEO 810120A (2 CDs: 90:54) Live: 12/14/2002
A blurb on the jewel case’s back plate states, “Both these works owe their premieres to Hans von Bülow.” That is not quite accurate, at least with regard to the Fourth Symphony. Brahms himself led the Meiningen Orchestra in the first public performance of the work on October 25, 1885. Von Bülow, the orchestra’s permanent
conductor at the time, then led subsequent performances of the work on a 14-city tour, giving it much wider exposure. As for the Second Piano Concerto, both composer and conductor introduced it to a Budapest audience on November 9, 1881, with Brahms playing the solo piano part.
Many celebrated instrumentalists have mounted the podium in recent years to become accomplished and admired conductors. Cases of well-known opera and Lieder singers doing likewise, however, are rarer and not always as successful. Plácido Domingo is one example that comes to mind. The eminent baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, probably best known for his work in German Lieder—though he was certainly no stranger to the opera stage—has, on occasion, if not often, also wielded a baton. In 2002, then 77, he led the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, formerly the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, in these Brahms performances. This is not the Berlin Philharmonic, but it is an estimable ensemble that has played under a number of “star” principal conductors, namely Kurt Sanderling, Günther Herbig, Claus Peter Flor, Michael Schønwandt, and Eliahu Inbal. Its current maestro is Lothar Zagrosek.
Those with a special interest in Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretive insights as a conductor may wish to acquire this two-CD set, but general collectors should be forewarned that it doesn’t come cheap. The two discs play for a combined total of approximately 91 minutes, only 10 minutes longer than the standard maximum time limit for a single CD, and ArkivMusic’s asking price for this release is $48.49. That’s $24.25 per disc, around $8 more per disc than the average full-priced offerings from the major labels. If the repertoire was obscure with few or no other available recordings, or the performances were incredibly fantastic, the cost might be justified, but I’m not sure that either of these readings, though in the very good category, rises above the very formidable competition.
Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, especially, has been receiving a good deal of attention on disc lately, from a truly stunning release on Pristine Audio of a remastered 1955 Mercury Living Presence recording by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony, to Simon Rattle’s recent rendition with the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI, to Marin Alsop’s entry on Naxos with the London Philharmonic, to Marcus Bosch’s Coviello recording with the Aachen Symphony Orchestra. Reviews of all these, and more, can be found in the
Fischer-Dieskau’s shaping of the symphony’s first movement has a rhapsodic feel to it. The pacing is moderate, and the phrases swell and ebb with a lovely lyrical freedom. The sense of impending tragedy is downplayed in favor of a less intensely dramatic reading. Whether one agrees or not with F-D’s interpretive stance, it must be said that the orchestra plays exceptionally well under his command, and the recording is first-rate.
The second movement is, in my opinion, a bit too slow—more of an
, really, than the marked
. At F-D’s tempo, the music loses its march-like tread. The third movement, however, is delivered with a good deal of animation and explosive force. Again, excellent overall playing is a hallmark of this performance, and that is particularly in evidence throughout the whole of the last movement.
Quibbles over whether this movement is a chaconne or a passacaglia are irrelevant since the two devices are so closely related that musicologists continue to debate the differences between them. Also, still apparently unsettled definitively is whether Bach’s Cantata No. 150,
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich
, is in fact by Bach. But its significance here is that Brahms had a copy of the cantata, believed it to be by Bach, and drew upon its chorale for the eight-bar sequence of his chaconne/passacaglia, chromatically raising the A? by a half-step to an A? in the fifth bar. But it’s in the last two bars, measures seven and eight, that Brahms does something both extraordinary and unsettling. He replaces the expected dominant-to-tonic (V-I) cadence with an augmented (French) sixth chord, B-D?-F?-A, built on the dominant instead of the more normal supertonic (II) of the scale. This serves two purposes: (1) it allows the progression to resolve to the tonic on E, albeit via an augmented sixth chord which, to the ear, functions as an altered dominant; and (2) it introduces into the harmony the lowered second degree of the scale, F? instead of F?, the Phrygian effect that plays such a crucial role in the symphony’s second movement and that lends the music such a tragic cast.
Whatever minor (no pun intended) shortcomings might exist earlier on in this performance, Fischer-Dieskau apprehends the acute sense of alarm and dread that informs this movement, delivering us, the doomed passengers on this voyage of the damned, to our final destination, oblivion. Though I’ve been familiar with this work since college, an analysis of it I read recently made me realize something I’d never really thought about before. Minor-key symphonies from Beethoven onward, as composer and musicologist Jan Swafford put it, “enact a drama from darkness to light and fatality to triumph by turning to the major mode by the end, but here the culmination is resolutely minor.” And music educator, author, and historian Walter Frisch has called the finale “the most extraordinary symphonic movement between Beethoven and Mahler.” F-D’s reading of the score lends credence to that statement.
The B?-Major Piano Concerto, with soloist Konstantin Lifschitz, is also well managed and presented in a balanced, transparent recording. I don’t have the feeling, though, as I do in the symphony, of a performance that is especially revealing or riveting. The Russian-born, Royal Academy of London-trained Lifschitz is a pianist I’ve encountered before in his Hänssler Classic recordings of Mozart’s violin sonatas with Dmitri Sitkovetsky. According to his bio, Lifschitz has concertized in Europe, the U.S., Canada, the Far East, Israel, Brazil, and New Zealand; and he’s racked up a respectable discography in repertoire ranging from Bach to Einem.
There’s nothing specific I would point to that disappoints in this performance; it’s technically without flaw and it’s played with a warmth and geniality best described by the word
. Notwithstanding the exception of the rather turbulent “extra” movement, the Allegro appassionato, this concerto is one of Brahms’s more relaxed and listener-friendly scores, which undoubtedly accounts for its popularity with audiences. But therein lies the problem for Lifschitz and Fischer-Dieskau; the potential buyer has 150 recordings to choose from, and the music lover/collector is bound to have already settled on one or more favorites. From Serkin, Rubinstein, Cliburn, Fleisher, Ax, and the recent Angelich, there are just too many to make meaningful comparisons in so short a space.
My recommendation for this release, particularly for the symphony, is a strong one, but to repeat my earlier caveat: The cost of this set is bound to make some keep their wallets and purses closed.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Berlin Concert House Orchestra
Written: 1884-1885; Austria
Concerto for Piano no 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Johannes Brahms
Konstantin Lifschitz (Piano)
Berlin Concert House Orchestra
Written: 1878-1881; Austria
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