Classical Music Review: New Releases

Gunther Schuller conducts Beethoven & Brahms.  Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67; Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.  Studio orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller.  GM Recordings, GM 2051.

Do we really need another recording of these two symphonies?  There are, after all, countless others by legendary conductors, and didn't Claudio Abbado's recent Fifth on Deutsche Grammophon sell only 500 copies?

Composer-conductor Gunther Schuller has thought long and hard about these things, and his recording of the two most famous C minor symphonies ever written has a different aim than most: he wants to get to the core of these scores.  But that's not easy when you consider the interpretive excesses visited upon them, and the "tradition" these have spawned.

Schuller clears these away: he takes Beethoven's metronome markings at face value and makes them work.  Much of the Fifth's dynamism, of course, comes from its rhythm, and its speeds -- and their relation to each other -- clarify its structure.  Schuller also gets his players, drawn from New York's finest orchestras, to pay special attention to dynamics so that you hear the rightness of Beethoven's scoring -- not flashy but completely effective.  His no-nonesense approach shows how Beethoven's form gets its weight from carefully balanced instrumental color, and the nuances Schuller draws from his players is amazing.  Rarely has this hoary old war-horse sounded so vigorous.

The story of Brahms' struggles with his First -- he was cowering in Beethoven's shadow, etc. -- have obscured its magnificence.  It's also probably a harder nut to crack than the Fifth because Brahms' wrote no metronome markings.  Schuller therefore had to arrive at workable speeds on his own -- c 92 for Movement 1, c 50-55 for 2, c 92-76 for 3, c 100-126 for 4 -- which feel organic.  Brahms has marked 1 and 2 as un poco sostenuto (somewhat sustained) and sostenuto (sustained), and Schuller follows this tempo description but finds lots of variety within it.  His players also get the tension between repression and revelation -- Brahms the bourgeois vs. Brahms the man of passion -- which is at the heart of this music.  And, unlike many conductors, he doesn't soup up the big string tune beginning in measure 28 of the Andante, which is Movement 2, but lets its intensity grow naturally which is ultimately more thrilling.

Schuller's performers also articulate the rhythm with great precision, observing Brahms' minutely detailed syncopations and his frequent use of two against three.  This allows the percussive character of the music, which is also a large part of its modernity, to come through.  Schuller's scrupulous attention to both spirit and letter lets Brahms' orchestra, whether at full tilt or up close and personal, make its expressive points.  Symphonies, after all, are objective, public affairs and private ones, too, and Schuller and his band happily make both sides matter.  I also doubt you'll ever hear a contrabassoon with this much bite.

This CD is a companion to Schuller's book The Compleat Conductor, a case study of several important repertory works which he analyzes with loving insight.

Michael McDonagh
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