Tuesday 18 August 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 7.30 p.m.
Recorded at Royal Albert Hall on 20 August 1994
The second pre-Classical Source Prom rebroadcast today, Günter Wand’s Bruckner being the other.
One of the most spiritual and saintly of conductors, at this Royal Albert Hall concert Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) led his young charges (then the European Community Youth Orchestra) in large-scale accounts of these Brahms Symphonies. The Second, as spacious and as moulded as you like, had the first movement (initially a little uncertain in the playing) verging on the somnambulant, although there was no doubting Giulini’s sincerity in seeking profound expression. No exposition repeat, in line with his two recordings, but when he conducted Brahms 2 with the Philharmonia (at a Royal Festival Hall concert, September 1984) he not only observed the repetition but with a tempo perhaps even more static than at the Proms – stretching the whole to around twenty-seven minutes. Back at the Proms, Giulini’s account of the slow movement was weighed down with emotional depth (if with little contrast to the opener, two adagios in effect), the third enjoyed elegance, and the Finale, if somewhat too deliberate, at least had direction, blaze and resolution.
I must express surprise at being critical of a musician I admire hugely, and I recall liking this Brahms 2 on the night, also from Radio 3. But, following the interval, Brahms 4 responded so much better to Giulini’s expansive approach. Indeed, it’s a glorious account, laden with meaningful pent-up reflections, players’ nerves (if there had been any) now banished, and Giulini’s combination of intensity, structural awareness, and subtleties of detailing and dynamics, pays compelling dividends. Following a rather serene slow movement, the giocoso Scherzo, at a moderate tempo, made me smile in its unperturbed swagger, hopefully just as Brahms intended. The Finale, launched attacca*, found Giulini at his most indomitable throughout the thirty variations, addressing Brahms’s stoicism in the (tragic) coda with corresponding grandeur.
*That’s how it was then, and in tonight’s repeat, but when BBCTV showed this concert a few days later someone had edited-in a pause to re-write history. I asked “why?” at the time. The question remains unanswered.