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Brahms and More on DVD

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Beethoven / Brahms, Piano Concerto / Symphony no.2,
W.Backhaus / K.Böhm / WPh
EuroArts DVD

The first DVD issue in this batch of three – all related via performances of Brahms symphonies – is the EuroArts issue (from the Unitel archives) of Karl Böhm conducting the Fourth Beethoven Piano Concerto and the Second Brahms Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic and Wilhelm Backhaus as the soloist. Böhm’s Brahms is warm, natural, musical, tempered, yet rich. It’s every bit as lovely a performance as can be expected from him and the Viennese and apart from an off-moment in the brass it is much like his performance with the same band on the Deutsche Grammophon recordings. However, I am not sure how much the visual element adds. Böhm’s understated conducting does not have the flair that might make watching him any more interesting than hearing the results. It serves, if nothing else, as a reminder that clownery is not necessary to achieve great music - or that great music ideally speaks for itself.

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Brahms Symphonies, Böhm

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Beethoven Sonatas, Backhaus

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Beethoven Concertos, Backhaus (oop)

The draw of this DVD is, at any rate, the Backhaus performance of the Beethoven concerto, recorded and filmed at the Rosenhügel studios in Vienna. Backhaus was 83 at the time of filming (April 1967) – but his playing does not betray his age… only his musical wisdom. He plays the concerto with immense clarity and a hugely confident, precise touch. There seems to be purpose behind every note; purpose at the service of the music, not his own ego. No unnecessary tone or emotion comes from this man with the impassive face; there is no smudging to improve individual instances that might, as in so many other performances, leave the impression of the whole in a hazy mess. By way of imperfect analogy: Looking closely at Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus it might be tempting to touch up and smoothen the almost crude brush strokes, one at a time. After completing this work, square inch by square inch, the ‘helpful’ restaurateur would likely be shocked when he steps back and sees the grand effect of the original in ruins. Like less-than-refined brush strokes in great painting, an almost barren tone with Backhaus emerges as an essential part of the unadulterated whole.

The liner notes very fittingly describe Backhaus’ look as “nobility but not ‘power’, seriousness without pompousness, devotion with no show of ‘piety’”. I would add – or summarize: A look of humble gravitas. There are two particularly touching, extraordinary moments: After the orchestral tutti of the first movement he gently ‘pre-touches’ the keys he is about to play… a coy reconnection with the concerto before he enters again. Later he is shown with the above described face, playing with his head slightly cocked, calm and at peace… as if searching for the music inside himself. The camera work is excellent. Every member of the crew seemed to know the score by heart – Backhaus’ hands, the focus of most of the shots – are never out of the frame.

It dazzles the mind; it is almost surreal to watch a color DVD of a pianist in performance who pushed his first piano keys long before Brahms, daisies. Call me a romantic… but this kind of visual, visceral connection of the presence (in this case: occasions we remember or remember being told about) with a past we otherwise think of as far, far removed has a profoundly moving effect on me.

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Brahms, Symphonies nos. 1 & 3,
L.Bernstein / IPO
Unitel/EuroArts DVD

Dazzle of a completely different kind is provided by Leonard Bernstein in the First and Third Brahms Symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. From the timpani supported entry of the First Symphony onward, this is Brahms with “BERNSTEIN!” written all over it: brash and bold, grandiose and grandiloquent. Here is flair in abundance and the contrast between the gentle and the ebullient passages is much amplified. The beefy Israel Philharmonic sound suits Bernstein’s sweat-drenched approach which, although not nearly as drawn out as his later DG recordings, is still on the broad side. The quality of playing is fine but not too impressive in the Third Symphony. These performances are concerts taped by Unitel in Jerusalem between August 1st and 3rd 1973. They have just been issued by EuroArts.

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Schubert / Brahms, Symphonies nos. 5 & 1, Wand / NDRSO
There could not be greater contrast between Bernstein’s Brahms and that of Günter Wand. The eminence grise of German conducting lead the NDR Sinfonieorchester at the 1997 Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in performances of Brahms’ First and Schubert’s Fifth. Already an old man then and just four (very active) years away from his death in February of 2002, four weeks after his 90th birthday, he comes up with readings that show nothing of indulgence.

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Schubert 5 / Bruckner 4, Wand

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Brahms Symphonies 1-4, Wand

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Schubert 9, Wand
The timings of the movements (taking repeats into consideration) may not be as far apart as one would expect upon hearing the two performances, but in 'perceived time', worlds separate an almost lean Wand from Bernstein. Wand did not slow down much with age, and only in some works (Bruckner’s Fourth, for example, became much broader in his late recordings; Bruckner’s Fifth never did, Bruckner’s Eight had always been broad), and even where he did, his ‘disappearing-in-the-music act’ never failed him. This “innate musicality”, a quality I find he has in common with Rafael Kubelik and Ferenc Fricsay, allows him to let the music speak without imposing an ‘interpretation’. What might sound like a recipe for bland performances in mediocre hands is pure joy with Wand. His Schubert Fifth, for example, is the lightest of joys imaginable… a performance that is rivaled only by his own, even later, account with the same band on RCA (it’s the subject my very first CD review for Ionarts) and Beecham.

If there is a problem with this DVD, it’s perhaps that ‘disappearing act’. Like with Böhm, there is not much that watching Wand conduct can add to the experience of listening to him. Indeed, I find myself distracted and less enthralled seeing Wand than listening to him. (This may also depend on whether you have to listen to DVDs through your TV’s inferior speakers or whether you run the sound through your stereo or high-quality surround system.) Just like with his Schubert Ninth (EuroArts/NDR vs. RCA/BPh), I’d rather turn to his CD performances of either of these works. (His second NDRSO cycle of Brahms is unsurpassed to these ears, ditto above mentioned Schubert Fifth.)

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