AT last we have heard what Herr Fritz and his orchestra can do. It was at St. James’s Hall on Monday evening, with a crowded audience; »crowded,« that is, as regards the reserved seats. The humbler concert-goers appeared to make a rather poor muster. Perhaps many of their number did not care to risk matters. They were wrong; and they might have known better. For it was common knowledge that Fritz Steinbach was no ordinary conductor. And so it proved. He and his orchestra gave a performance of Brahms’s First Symphony that was positively an interpretative revelation. We all thought we knew this music of Bahms bar by bar, and we left St. James’s Hall far wiser men! The reading of the Symphony differed so materially from the current one that you almost seemed to be hearing the music for the first time. One can hear one’s reader exclaim – who was not at the concert – »mere exaggeration«; »said for sake of effect« or for »sake of journalistic freshness.« All very untrue. By the time these lines are read it will be too late to decide to hear a Brahms Symphony performed by Steinbach and his men, so it is useless to speak of not missing an opportunity, for if our readers have not been to St. James’s Hall this week, they have already missed it.
What are the interpretative differences? My answer is: they are too numerous to mention. And it is most important to remember that Herr Steinbach is not making game of us. He has had the advantage of Brahms’s interpretative guidance, and we can have no valid reason to assume that the conductor’s reading – so startlingly new to us in London – departs from the wishes of the composer. On the contrary, it would seem that Brahms’s First Symphony (together with his other symphonies) has suffered most seriously from lack of true understanding of the Master’s music. Brahms is not the dreary writer we thought him, full of dryness and pedanticism, but a composer of living, noble music, as human as any. »Noble music« is true; and it was Herr Steinbach who made it sound so. It is no new thing in the history of music for a composer to be misunderstood for years together through the fault of his interpreters. Herr Steinbach, translating the spirit of Brahms for us, has made us feel ashamed; and the best of us will admit it. Details of the performance have been avoided; but they would, in the present case, only confuse the reader. The whole impression should be conveyed: that is what I sought to do, and I am content.
There is one objection to make regarding this orchestra: that is, its constitution. Its bass is magnficently solidquite ideal; but, save in the First Symphony of Brahms, the wood-wind and brass were overpowering, even irritating one to an appreciable extent. The fact is, the brass are very full-bodied players (somewhat exaggerating their powers, perhaps) and the wind, all excellent executants, are inclined – very inclined – to force their tone. There are not enough strings in this band to stand it, and modern music, like Richard Strauss’s tone poem »Don Juan« and Wagner’s Overture to »Die Meistersinger,« had absolutely the wrong effect. Both compositions sounded, at times, as if they had been arranged for wind and brass alone. Perhaps the Wagner Overture suffered most. In many respects the tone of our Queen’s Hall Orchestra is far more beautiful. The coarseness of sound in the Wagner music almost made me long to escape. It was not right; and there is no getting over the fact. Moreover, the performance of the Strauss and Wagner music showed no particular insight in an interpretative sense. It was merely ordinary. But the playing of Brahms. … well, it has been written, in effect, that it was superb. What more can be said!