HAYDN, BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS AND KOUSSEVITSKY CDs REVIEWED BY NORMAN STINCHCOMBE
Haydn Op.42, Op.77, Op.103: Takács Quartet (Hyperion) ★★★★
The personnel has changed since 1975 but the original Takács Quartet character remains. The sharpness of attack, wide-ranging variety of tone and colour, plus willingness to explore a work’s less traversed nooks and crannies, which I saw in their Birmingham Town Hall recitals a decade ago, are displayed here. Cellist András Fejér, the only original member and first violin Edward Dusinberre, who joined in 1993, provide the continuity. The two Op.77 quartets, No.1 in G major and No.2 in F major, were Haydn’s last completed quartets and a fittingly triumphant farewell to the medium he created. No.1 has one of Haydn’s finest Adagios, a ‘Creation’ style move from darkness to dazzling light, while No.2’s disingenuously titled “minuet” is playful, madcap and provoking, despatched wittily by the Takács players. Two D minor works, the miniature Op.42 and intriguing slow movement from the unfinished Op.103, complete a stimulating and satisfying programme masterfully played.
Beethoven Symphonies 4 & 8: Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin / Forck (2 CDs Harmonia Mundi) ★★★
For several years now conductor Bernhard Forck and his Berlin original instrument band have been giving concerts and making recordings as part of their project ‘Beethoven and His Contemporaries’. Each has paired a Beethoven symphony with works by composers both familiar and obscure: Mozart, C.P.E. Bach, Wranitzky, Holzbauer and Knecht. This third instalment puts Beethoven’s fourth symphony with Cherubini’s overture from his opera ‘Lodoïska’ and, on the second disc, his eighth symphony with the Symphony No.1 in G minor by Méhul. While Cherubini’s influence can be seen in Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ – both are of the “rescue opera” genre with conjugal love overcoming villainy – the music itself doesn’t bear comparison. Except in length, Méhul’s elegant, dashing but lightweight work sheds little light on Beethoven’s dynamism, thematic ingenuity and bluff humour. Forck and his top rate band give lithe, energetic performances of the Beethoven symphonies but there are far more gripping ones available.
Brahms Complete Symphonies: LSO / Haitink (LSO Live 4 SACD / CD) ★★★★
With Bernard Haitink’s fine 1970s Brahms cycle with the Concertgebouw Orchestra deleted, along with his less successful Boston 1980s set, this refurbished and repackaged live set with the London Symphony orchestra is especially welcome. They were originally released in 2003-4 on four separate standard CDs. For this set all the discs have been remastered in super-audio in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound formats. Comparing them reveals substantial gains in dynamic range, clarity and presence. In the Serenade in A, for wind and strings, the LSO’s formidable wind section really sparkles. Did Brahms ever write anything as easygoing, affable and catchy as its closing Rondo? Haitink’s approach in the symphonies is direct, rhythmically taut and – depending on taste – refreshingly free of pomp and inflated rhetoric. The fourth symphony is excellent, the third outstanding. The double concerto with Gordon Nikolitch (violin) and Tim Hugh (cello) is a stylish and incisively played bonus.
Serge Koussevitsky Live: London Philharmonic Orchestra / Koussevitsky (Somm Recordings) ★★★
The Russian-born conductor made the Boston Symphony Orchestra into one of America’s finest in his tenure from 1924-1949. His prime legacy though is the number of works he commissioned from the great composers of the day. Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’ and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures’ are examples. Recordings of Koussevitsky conducting are few and he died in 1951 just before the LP era and boom in post-war record sales. These live 1950 Royal Albert Hall recordings of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and Sibelius’s second symphonies demonstrate the energy and flexible tempi that so impressed Koussevitsky’s pupil Leonard Bernstein. The Tchaikovsky Andante cantabile is lovingly shaped while the finale – faster even than Dorati – is thrilling. A strong pulse and urge to press ahead are evident in Sibelius. The sound quality is of course pretty basic. Jan Tolansky’s documentary memoirs with LPO and Boston players are a fascinating bonus.