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Rob Cowan
Gramophone, August 2010

A Bavarian birthday offering

Celebrating 60 years of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

A seven-disc 60th-birthday celebration of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra reminds us how, in a relatively short space of time, this marvellous orchestra has achieved a stylistic and tonal profile that is as distinctive as any in Europe. Much of the credit must go to Rafael Kubelík, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1961 to 1979, whose flexible and at times highly personal approach showcased such interpretative sensitivities as illuminated inner voices (violas and middle woodwinds especially) and a Furtwänglerian sense of spontaneous re-creation. Orfeo has already put out a fine Kubelík/BRSO Bruckner Symphony No 8 (from the early Sixties) but this one from 1977 is even finer, the central flowering of the great Adagio second movement a miracle to behold. Kubelík’s Bruckner, like his Mahler, eschews monumentality in favour of lyrical phrasing and transparent textures, though the temperature and voltage are often unnervingly high, especially in the finale where tempi fluctuate almost as much as Furtwängler’s. It’s a truly heroic reading, one that draws unexpected parallels with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, most particularly in the first movement. I do hope that Bavarian Radio picks up where Audite have apparently left off and treats us to other Kubelík broadcasts that still haven’t made it ti disc. There surely must still be plenty.

The set opens with a touching tribute to Furtwängler whose expansive Second Symphony was completed in Switzerland in 1946 and provides, in a sense, a musical summing-up of the great conductor’s strengths and aspirations. His Romantic creative flight was inevitably at odds with the disorienting cross-winds of modernism, with Tchaikovsky (the use of the bassoon), Liszt (the radiant Faust-like last movement coda) and of course Bruckner as obvious influences. Later in life Furtwängler the composer was a force waiting to be reckoned with, though he never really was, and this performance of the Symphony, which he himself refused to conduct in Munich (fearing that the audience would be coming to hear “him” rather than “it”), turned out to be his Munich memorial. He died nine days before the performance, having agreed at least to attend the rehearsals. Eugen Jochum does a marvellous job, his reading very much in the Furtwängler’s Second Symphony is roughly comparable with Suk’s Asrael Symphony. Aside from its memorable themes and formidable structure it provides a valuable insight into how the conductor thought, musically, which in turn can only enhance our appreciation of his work on the rostrum. Still, do look out one of Furtwängler’s own recordings, preferably from Berlin (DG) or Vienna (Orfeo, 4/95). Also, could we have more live Jochum recordings from this source?

Years later fate intervened yet again when the man scheduled to replace Kubelík died suddenly of a heart attack, a real tragedy given the evidence of Kyrill Kondrashin’s 1980 BRSO recordings of César Franck’s Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival, which are exceptional by any standards. The burning drama and surging lines of Kondrashin’s conducting are well known from numerous other recordings and one can only pine for what might have been. Kondrashin’s brand of flexibility was at times more wilful than Kubelík’s but no less musical. By contrast Sir Colin Davis, who became the orchestra’s chief conductor in 1983 was, or is (as the booklet-note observes) “unpretentious”, meaning I suppose prone not to exaggerate. Davis conducts a beautifully phrased and generally mellow reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1983), the high-point of which is a quite magical account of the penultimate variation where I have never heard a better played rendition of that wonderful clarinet well displayed in a fine 1987 recording of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, the “finger-near-the-button” Moderato second movement sounding especially ominous. I love the way Davis encourages the saxophone “to turn on the jazz”: so often the writing sounds apologetic, almost embarrassed, which rather ruins the sleazy effect that Vaughan Williams surely intended.

Lorin Maazel started his Bavarian sojourn in 1993 and the evidence of his work here is well displayed in a pair of virtuoso Stravinsky performances, the 1919 Firebird Suite from 1999 and The Rite of Spring from a year earlier. The Rite’s most memorable moments are at the beginning of “The Sacrifice”, which is beautifully played, but although energy levels are high elsewhere, the sum effect lacks tension. Which brings us to the orchestra’s current maestro, Mariss Janson’s, heard in this context conducting the music of Richard Strauss, the only concert to end with recorded applause. The Rosenkavalier Suite (2006) is often very seductive, though lacking the sort of beery exuberance you might have expected from Munich, Jansons’s Till Eulenspiegel (2009) is rich in affectionate detail, the manner of his narrative combining humour and refinement. Anja Harteros sings an unstintingly heartfelt set of Four Last Songs, in the process confirming Jansons to be a superb accompanist. Telling detail is legion but the vocal line is never swamped or sidelined.

So, a very happy and valuable collection, one that hopefully signals the start of a long tradition of celebratory CDs put out by the Bavarian Radio Symphony. The orchestra deserves it, and so do we!






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8:38:19 AM, 24 September 2014
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