VINE VOICEon January 31, 2013
In 1983 the late Klaus Tennstedt was appointed Principal Conductor & Music Director of the LPO, the same year in which the BBC caught him and his 'new' orchestra in this terrific Brahms 3rd at the Royal Festival Hall. Their relationship had begun some five years before and he had guest conducted the a number of times before his permanent appointment, which should come as no surprise when listening to the superb symbiosis between orchestra and conductor captured on this handsome pair of discs.
Darkly-hued and mysterious, Tennstedt charts a gloriously characterful opening to the 3rd; the strings sweet but never cloying, the woodwind perky and the heft of the whole orchestra, when brought to bear, brooding and dramatically thrilling. Tennstedt reminds us that this opening movement is marked allegro con brio, and there is brio here in ample measure. This is not massive, grandiose music-making, rather here the inner-writing, so often lost on other recordings in a homogeneous mush of sound, is sparklingly delineated; though he is careful to never lets his noted eye for orchestral detail hold the onward surging movement a hostage to fortune.
The andante is the bucolic intercession Brahms surely intended it to be; sun-dappled and at times gently wistful and the LPO are caught beautifully in what, in the hands of a less able engineering team, is a dry and graceless acoustic. Shortly into the movement, when the clarinets and bassoons take up the pastoral theme it is presented as languidly characterful and unforced, it unfolds exquisitely. When the strings enter later theirs is a swirling, heady cocktail, doubtless just the thing to rejuvenate even the most jaded Brahmsian palate. Tennstedt brings to the fore a real sense of cantabile and the love both he and his players have for this work is palpable throughout.
The allegretto third movement is once again shaped with care and beauty and there is never a hint of opulent, big-band stodge; the gorgeous theme moves onward at an ideal tempo - neither headlong and reckless nor sluggish and sclerotic. The pulse Tennstedt sets invariably strikes me as perfectly chosen - flowingly lyrical and rooted in an innate sense of the austro-germanic tradition from which it springs. He realises a wonderful sense of true pathos but, in true Tennstedt style, it never descends into self regard or mawkishness and, importantly, it remains piquant and fleet-of-foot throughout.
The final movement allegro is once again quite naturally spontaneous in feel, tempos well chosen and never undermining the sense of movement. Prophetic and fiery, the orchestra set the hall ablaze and had I been sitting in the South Bank that night I am sure I would have been overwhelmed and thrilled by such playing. Once again, the layers of the orchestral sound are beautifully balanced by Tennstedt, nothing is lost in a miasma of sound: the sonorous brass and woodwinds are cut through by the quicksilver, scurrying strings and all are ideally caught in this live radio transmission which has none of the constrained or boxy limitations which used to be the hallmark of Festival Hall recordings. The elegiac ending is superbly shaped, bringing to a plaintive close a remarkable and memorable reading of this favourite Brahms symphony.
Tennstedt recorded the first symphony for EMI in September 1983, but the live reading here on the second disc dates from 14th October 1992 and again hails from the RFH. Tennstedt throws red meat to the LPO - and the devour it for him as only they truly can. The portentous timpani opening the first movement are akin to a spiritual battering ram, their relentless thundering evoking a sense of dread and doom rarely so viscerally made. The movement's sense of struggle is never in doubt and the victories are bitter and hard-won. Tension reaches meteoric levels with Tennstedt turning the screw ever tighter, the baleful, doom-filled timps underlining the epic sense of turmoil and battle. The moments of repose, when they do come, act as blessed unction to the sick.
The andante sostenuto is deftly handled, woodwinds glow and their legato playing is a much needed shaft of sunlight rent through the slate grey heavens made so starkly real in the hellish upheaval of the first movement. The violins and violas gravely beautiful dance enraptures and the theme carried to the conclusion by the spiralling, gleaming violin is imbued with a wonderful serenity and peace.
The allegretto third movement is taken once again at a beautifully judged tempo, so that it canters along in a very spontaneous way, punctuated by superb brass playing, and for once the movement's end isn't made to sound harried or breathless.
The final movement makes its presence known with the return of thundering timpani and, after a brief oasis of pizzicato-laden tranquility, we are reminded that there is a hell of a struggle that remains unresolved. The luminous, yet sinew-stiffening, brass chorale is a real call to arms here. The listener must seize upon the brief respite provided by the glorious chorale as it makes its appearance before the feverish temperature once again begins to spiral and Tennstedt and his players propel us into the high drama of the symphony's close. Again, superbly paced Tennstedt holds back ever so slightly on the febrile impulse to hurl all to the winds and be damned, and it is only at the very close of the movement that I would have liked him to exercise a little less restraint as the breadth of the closing bars, for me, fractionally dissipates the unearthly, fatalistic tornado of nervous energy he had driven relentlessly onwards, desperately seeking an outlet.
This live first is to be preferred to the studio reading of nearly a decade earlier. The tension is greater and the thunderbolts are grasped more unerringly.
The audience is very well behaved throughout and while applause is excised from the third, the audience acclamation makes a throaty & deserving appearance at the close of the juggernaut first.
The sound as caught on both these discs is first class and though the set comprises two discs, there are no makeweights, the total playing time slightly exceeds the constraints of a single disc, at eighty four minutes and thirty seconds. In fairness though this is sold at the cost of a mid price single CD and, bearing in mind the very high quality of the musicmaking they contain, they should be snapped-up by anyone who loves Brahms or wants to discover more about Tennstedt, surely the most underrated conductor working in London during the 1980s and '90s.