Music on CD

Robert Cowan reviews a new set of historical recordings of Brahms from EMI
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One hundred years after his death, and still Johannes Brahms falls victim to a host of unfair accusations - a "stodgy" composer, some call him, or "heavyweight", "conservative", even "portentous". Which is why, in the orchestral works at least, the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington, Sir Charles Mackerras and others have opted to fight Brahms's flab, tapering textures, quickening the pace, moderating vibrato and dispensing with "doubled" instruments.

As ever, a brief trip down memory lane - or, if you're too young to remember, a retrospective exploration of old recordings - reveals that all was not quite what we assumed it to be. EMI's mid-price reissues (on its import References label) of key Brahms sessions from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties are full of startling surprises.

For openers, there are Wilhelm Backhaus's 78rpm versions of the two piano concertos, generously supplemented with various solo piano works (CHS5 66418 2, two discs). Those expecting a broad, indulgent, romantically inclined approach will be interested to note that Backhaus's 1933 version of the First Piano Concerto (under that most vital of Brahmsians, Adrian Boult) is as lissome, keenly driven and unmannered as any since, and a lot more commanding than most. Tempos are swift, pedalling spare and the end result, a young man's music poised on the verge of a symphony (which is what the first movement nearly became).

The Second Concerto was recorded in Dresden prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and is similarly unfettered, whereas the solo pieces - various Intermezzi, Rhapsodies, Hungarian Dances, etc - date from between 1932 and 1936. The transfers are clearer than their excellent Biddulph predecessors, mainly because EMI's "clean-up" wizard Andrew Walter had access to the "metal masters" from which the original 78s were pressed.

Backhaus's manner can be bluff, impulsive and fanciful; but it can also summon mysterious storm clouds, as in the greatest of all the "late" Intermezzi, the eruptive E flat minor, Op 118 No 6. His gaily swirling set of Brahms Waltzes forms part of a tender waltz-time miscellany (CHS5 66425 2) that also includes pieces from the same opus in their original duet form and two separate performances of the delightful Liebeslieder waltzes, one recorded pre-war and headed by tenor Hugues Cuenod with Dinu Lipatti and Nadia Boulanger as piano duettists, the other a post-war recording with a star-studded vocal line-up that includes Irmgard Seefried, Elisabeth Hongen and Hans Hotter. The older performance is the sweeter of the two, whereas its Viennese successor is a rather more lilting affair. Both report a rapturous flow of melody that approximates - in effect, if not in style - a Strauss-family waltz of epic proportions.

Each recording has its fair quota of memorable singing, although, in that respect at least, a 79-minute recital of 25 Lieder featuring Alexander Kipnis (CHS5 66426 2) is greater still. Kipnis's dark, rolling bass can declaim (as in the last of the Four Serious Songs) or console (as in the celebrated Wiegenlied), and Gerald Moore provides characteristically sympathetic accompaniments.

As to the Violin Concerto, Joseph Szigeti's legendary 1928 recording with the Halle under Sir Hamilton Harty has a depth of perception and narrative warmth that is in marked contrast to the more overtly virtuosic readings of, say, Heifetz and Stern. Szigeti and Harty make manly music of the first movement (David Oistrakh and Klemperer provide the nearest point of reference) and the Adagio is glorious, in spite of a laughably foursquare opening oboe solo. The fill-ups (on CDH5 66421 2) involve the talents of that masterful though underrated pianist Egon Petri, who partners Szigeti in the Third Violin Sonata and goes solo for a splendidly virile account of the Paganini Variations. Petri's unfussy playing anticipates the immaculate interpretative manners of a later age, but EMI's choice for the three string quartets harks back to a period when slides, vibrato and maximum phrasal freedom were the order of the day.

The Hungarian-born Lener Quartet was just 10 years old when it teamed up with Charles Draper for a recording of Brahms's Clarinet Quintet (CHS5 66422 2, two discs) that combines equal measures of ardour and reflectiveness. The 1928 sound is remarkably good, though the quartet recordings - which date from between 1929 and 1933 - are, in most respects, even better. There is no obvious "grid" to these performances, no pre-set interpretative formula; they can be swift without sounding rushed (as in the First Quartet), or steeped in reverie without stooping to sentimentality (as in the Second).

The Third Quartet is more leisurely than most, and yet it breathes, sings and sighs with such conviction, you're temporarily convinced it could never be otherwise. Transfers, annotation and presentation are, as in the whole of this invaluable series, beyond reproachn