Utah Symphony Orchestra (Abravanel) – ‘Brahms: Symphony No.1, Academic Festival Overture’ A DVD-Audio review by Mark Jordan

June 3, in Artists, Titles

Brahms fans, rejoice! This new Silverline DVD-Audio release not only marks the debut of Maurice Abravanel’s glorious Utah Symphony cycle on DVD-Audio, it also stands as the first time these recordings have truly had a format that allows them to bloom like the beautiful flowers they are. One can quibble here and there about a detail in Abravanel’s performances, but the inescapable fact is that no one conducts Brahms like this anymore. No Brahms performances of comparable stature have appeared in the last thirty years. Louder, thicker, more staid Brahms performances there have been a-plenty, but truly insightful Brahms conducting has become one very rare bird.

Part of what is so special about Abravanel’s performances with the Utah Symphony is the connection that these performers had. Abravanel’s tenure in Utah lasted for thirty-two years, from 1947 to 1979. In that time, he made a provincial ensemble in a remote city into a true gem. At times, they may have seemed passé, when compared the super-saturated orchestral sound that became the rage when Karajan dominated the international scene. Working in comparative isolation, Abravanel created an orchestra focused on clarity and warmth, poise and passion. If Karajan created a velvet sound, Abravanel and his players could best be described as a vivid watercolor. In hindsight, the worst of Karajan’s excesses now seem the equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings, while Abravanel’s poise stands radiant and proud.

This release features specifically Brahms’ ‘Symphony No.1 in C minor’ and the ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’. Abravanel starts things off promisingly with a spacious yet urgent introduction to the first movement, and when the main allegro starts, it is crisp and even more urgent, not the muddled slog that we so often get these days. Welcome, too, is Abravanel’s seamless transition into the second theme. Instead of the predictable, traditional slowing down that most conductors think is “expressive”, Abravanel keeps the tempo going. Yet there is a distinct relaxing of tensions, a warmth that shows Abravanel and his orchestra know exactly where this music is going both in terms of detail and in terms of the overall momentum of the piece. Conductors with the fire of Furtwängler or Walter were able to slow the second theme down without losing the long line of Brahms’ symphonic structure, but that has led to generations of imitators who mimic the gesture without having the insight to maintain the forward movement. Abravanel’s concentration on the evolutionary flow from section to section carries this performance through and makes one hear the music anew. Those insistent on repeats should be warned, though, that Abravanel does not include the exposition repeat in the first movement.

Part of the “newness” of this performance is Abravanel’s grace, especially in the second movement, which can so often sound like a sentimental wallow that goes on forever. In the hands of Abravanel’s players, it unfolds in one gentle, flowing breath. So involving is their handling of it, it seems hard to believe the timing comes in at a little over eight minutes, because it seems as if it just started, yet also feels perfectly timeless. In the third movement, Abravanel skillfully balances the reintroduction of tension with a graceful tempo. (Abravanel’s tempos are almost invariably faster than modern performances, though it might be more accurate to describe them as more flowing.) For a good example of his quiet but pervasive authority, listen to the end of the third movement: As he relaxes the tempo near the end, the woodwind lines do not threaten to get out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, as they do on almost every other recording. Obviously, Abravanel noted the tendency of woodwind players to not slow down as quickly as the strings, and addressed it, keeping all the lines together.

Refreshing is Abravanel’s finale, with the introduction coherently unified and the timpani eruptions passionate, without distending the tempo. After a richly sonorous chorale, well balanced between brass and woodwinds, the main allegro is established in an unusually robust and optimistic treatment of the famous theme in the second violins. Instead of losing momentum and wallowing, Abravanel’s players stride purposefully into the theme, though they still play it with great warmth. With this simple but bold stroke, Abravanel is able to move into the battle without the usual awkward gear shifting of the average performance. Without flinching from the attack, Abravanel keeps the potentially turgid textures of this stormy movement clear so that the ear never becomes fatigued. Abravanel offers considerable intensity even if he does not quite scale the demonic heights that Bruno Walter so unforgettably conquered in his now rarely heard 1956 Columbia recording with the New York Philharmonic (a far, far greater performance than his genial stereo remake from 1962 which is kept in the catalogue simply because it is stereo instead of monophonic). There are some minor inconsistencies toward the end, where Abravanel is just slightly under tempo at the beginning of the coda, probably because he was attentively holding back the players to keep the accelerando from turning into a muddled rout as it so often becomes in less attentive hands. The reprise of the chorale is not as bloatedly slowed as most (although, frankly, I’m a fan of Jascha Horenstein’s London Symphony recording with no slow down at all). The ending is suitably triumphant.

Indeed, the reference to Horenstein’s 1963 recording is apt, for Abravanel is almost as rigorous in clarifying textures in this symphony, although he allows more warmth than the austere Russian conductor. Historical sources note that one performance of the ‘First Symphony’ which Brahms himself approved of, was timed at less than forty minutes (without repeats). Abravanel’s performance is only slightly longer than that, at 41:13, giving us a taste of this music closer to how it was originally conceived than the modern fifty-minute or longer performances. For the ultimate in life-or-death renditions of this work, one must go back to the age of monophonic recordings for the aforementioned Walter and Furtwängler recordings, or for Toscanini’s white-hot performance, provided that you can tolerate Toscanini’s extensive rewriting of the score in places. For performances featuring the modern sound of more sleekly corporate orchestras, one could turn to any of Günter Wand’s RCA recordings, although the insights are fewer, and the performances a little more on autopilot than here. I would also give a nod to the crisp cycle Sir Charles Mackerras has recorded with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Telarc. One modern recording that remembers that this symphony is above all else lyrical and more closely related to Schumann than to the usually noted Beethoven is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Teldec disc. Unfortunately, it is not as clearly recorded as would be desirable, nor is it as insightful as Abravanel. I have also heard guardedly enthusiastic recommendations of Abbado’s Brahms cycle from Berlin, but I have not yet heard it, myself. What I can say with conviction is that Abravanel’s Brahms cycle beats the following full or partial cycles: Muti, Mehta, Bernstein, Dohnanyi, Eschenbach, Harnoncourt, Järvi, Solti, Giulini, Levine (although his CSO ‘First’ is killer), Reiner, Munch, Leinsdorf, Kertesz, and even Sawallisch (though his is recommendable along with Mackerras as the best digitally-recorded cycles). Not bad for a conductor and orchestra working in isolation out in the middle of the desert.

Also included on this disc is a luminous performance of the ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’, marred only by the omission of a contrabassoon in the scoring of the ‘St. Anthoni Chorale’ theme, which, incidentally, modern research has determined is not actually by Haydn. As ever, Abravanel is a lucid guide to this music, and the orchestra delights in Brahms’ endlessly creative details. My favorite performance of the work remains George Szell’s Cleveland recording, although this comes close. Indeed, one could think of Abravanel’s Utah Symphony of the 1970’s as being a slightly less full, slightly less polished, yet also slightly more flexible version of Szell’s formidable Cleveland Orchestra of the 1960’s. The desire for the same sort of chamber-music lucidity motivated both conductors, and thus, both ensembles.

This specific recording was originally made in the spacious Mormon Tabernacle in May of 1976 by Vanguard Records. The original producer (and the visionary behind Vanguard) was Seymour Solomon, and he must have had a dream of how fine home playback equipment would someday be, because there is little doubt that the quality of his Utah recordings far exceeded the playback technology of the time. By that point, Quadraphonic sound was already beginning to go belly-up, but Solomon insisted on recording in four channels in Utah, right up to Abravanel’s retirement. None of the Quad records of the seventies, let alone the stereo versions, truly conveyed the acoustic gold of those sessions. But now with advanced-resolution multichannel playback, these recordings can come into their own. Of course, the original analog tapes were 4.0 multichannel, with two front and two rear channels, and Silverline Classics doesn’t detail exactly how they adapted them for 5.1 multichannel, but one can assume some sort of matrix was used to electronically pull part of the front channels together to synthesize a center channel. What is remarkable is that this process does not pull the orchestral sound image excessively to the center. Perhaps the lively acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City help keep the imaging very spacious, without muddying textures. On powerful chords, one can hear the sound sweeping off to the distant corners of the Tabernacle in the rear surround channels. The overall orchestral image is moderately close, allowing the orchestra’s chamber-music textures to sound crisply within the hall’s spacious reverberation. Suffice it to say that they have never sounded this good in any of their previous incarnations, and it’s hard to imagine the current versions being improved upon. It is worth noting that the 90% sound rating is only due to the slight limitations of the original recording in terms of bass and impact, which are very marginally slighter than a modern recording. And there are additionally a few thumps, page turns, and chair squeaks that some may protest, although I feel they add to the sense of occasion of the recording sessions. Whether one fusses over such details or not, though, these are gleaming, glowing recordings. How delightful to see them finally get their technological due. The 96kHz 24-bit advanced-resolution surround mix is quite glorious, substantially richer and heftier than the 96kHz two-channel stereo program, although it in itself is still an improvement in clarity and presence over any previous LP or CD versions. Impressively, the Dolby Digital surround sound mix is almost as good as the DVD-Audio mix, which will certainly make this release all the more attractive to collectors who have plain DVD players with home theater surround setups, although the Dolby two-channel stereo program is clearly a notch below the advanced-resolution DVD-Audio stereo sound. What is nicest of all is that all four playback platforms can be quickly and easily accessed from a menu screen. The key thing is that the surround mixes bring the listener into the vast space of the Mormon Tabernacle, whereas the stereo mixes leave one at a distance. Being within the cathedral-like envelope of sound is the only way to properly appreciate these recordings, for their spaciousness can strike a sense of awe in the listener that the stereo mixes couldn’t possibly convey.

Silverline is also to be commended for the boatload of special features on this disc. In addition to several photo galleries which can be accessed while the music is playing, there is a video tribute to Maurice Abravanel from his friend and associate conductor Ardean Watts, who reads the eulogy he gave at Abravanel’s memorial service in 1993, interspersed with pictures of the conductor from over the years conducting the Utah Symphony and working with famous guest artists. This deeply moving salute is almost fifteen minutes long, and features many excerpts from the Vanguard recordings as backdrop, including, most evocatively, the Vaughan Williams ‘Symphony No.6’ heard at the beginning. There is also a shorter video, featuring interviews with members of the Utah Symphony, offering recollections of intense yet joyous recording sessions with Abravanel. Additionally, there is an interesting video detailing the restoration process used by Silverline Classics for this major project, which will include not only Abravanel’s Brahms cycle, but also his Mahler and Sibelius cycles, as well as several other releases. On top of that (!), there is a multipage biography of the composer, a page of technical notes listing the equipment used in restoring these recordings, a speaker setup advisory page, and a list of credits.

I can’t resist, for the delight of our audiophile readers, detailing some of the equipment used by Silverline engineer Chris Haynes in restoring these tapes: The tapes were obtained from Vanguard’s climate-controlled archive collection. Original Vanguard personnel helped clarify which tapes were original masters, as opposed to backup masters and other copies. Most of the tapes were in stable condition, unlike many tapes from the period, which have deteriorated over the years. After performing whatever stabilization steps were necessary, the tapes were played back on an Ampex ATR-104, Haynes’ all-time favorite analog tape machine. This was connected to ATR Aria Discrete Class A Reference Series machines with Wireworld Gold Eclipse interconnect cables, for the purest possible signal. The analog/digital converter used for 192kHz 24-bit conversion was a Pacific Microsonics Model 2. Editing software included Nuendo, Pro Tools HD, and Waves Linear Phase EQ and Restoration Tools. The capture card used was a Lynx Studio Technology AES16. Loving transfer of lovable performances!

We live in an age graced with great performances of early music and later romantics, such as Mahler. But Beethoven is making something of a comeback, so let’s hope Brahms will, too. Gruff old Brahms has been a bit out of fashion in recent years as the pantheon of great composers has had to be shaken up to make room for the likes of Bruckner and Mahler, who were undervalued in their day. But there is little doubt that Brahms will hang in there for the long run, because whatever whims of taste and playing style come and go, his music still speaks richly with the voice of genius.

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