Rarely do I discover a recording of a work that completely replaces my prior understanding of the piece, and becomes the “new favorite.” It’s happening now, with the 1957 Haydn Variations that is the b-side of the Karajan Schubert Unfinished I blogged about a couple of days ago.
The Philharmonia recordings from this era all have a special feel to them, not just in the sonics, but also the bouyancy of the music making. Brahms here is distinctly English, noble but not heavy or wrought wrought with Romantic Sehnsucht — the emotional longing that characterizes the German art of the age.
This is more like Elgar and Enigma, with each Variation a unique personality, with the original theme woven in and around it, in a far more precise and elegant way here than in any of HvK’s three Berlin recordings, though prior to finding this Philharmonia version I favored the 1976. In Variation VI, there is Dennis Brain soaring above the orchestra, propelling the music forward. How much of this is melodic (and instrumental) clarity we owe to Walter Legge’s engineering magicianship one cannot say. But that this 54 year old piece of plastic is producing such glorious noise is truly a wonder. (By comparison, Barbirolli in Vienna, a decade later, sounds overbearing and heavy…in the Sofiensaal!)
HvK and the Philharmonia give us an absolutely glorious, joyous final Variation — a completely different experience than it become under him in Berlin, where drama and Sehnsucht took over. I cannot help imagine that the British band is channeling Elgar and Enigma and the final Variation there: Not a finale, but a some of the parts.