The Brahms Symphonies

In light of having to take a brief respite from posting on what I eat, it seemed like a good time to return to my periodic series on symphony recordings. Brahms has been one of my two or three favorite composers for nearly as long as I’ve been listening to classical music, so I’m past due to shine the spotlight on him. 

For each symphony, I will provide recommendations for both stereo and mono recordings – my personal favorite for all four being mono. 

Symphony No. 1

Brahms was a successful composer for many years before finally completing his first symphony. He claimed the pressure of following in the footsteps of Beethoven, who was widely considered the unchallenged master of the symphony, was immense. And indeed, when he finally did publish his first, the ultimate mark of its success was that it was nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth.

For my stereo pick – albeit early stereo – I turn to Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, who give a central, mainstream reading that I’ve seen recommended online countless times over the years. My mono pick is a live performance by Wilhelm Furtwangler and the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra. It’s a bit slower than average, but the intensity level never lets up. 

Symphony No. 2

Finally getting his first symphony published seemed to have opened the flood-gates for Brahms, as his second symphony premiered just over a year after the debut of the first. It features a gorgeous, flowing opening movement and explosive finale. 

Claudio Abbado’s second recording of the piece with the Berlin Philharmonic is my stereo choice. It was a televised performance by them at Carnegie Hall during the early nineties that first caused me to take note of this symphony. For a mono recording, I picked Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. Nobody has captured both the flowing and explosive qualities of the piece better than Water did in this 1953 recording.

Symphony No. 3

The third symphony is relentlessly beautiful and melodic with a powerful finale. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s recording is often praised both for its power and clarity. And once again, I turn to Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic for my mono pick. I could have also chosen his later stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony, but I like the extra bit of aggression that he drew from the New Yorkers. 

Symphony No. 4

Brahms’ fourth and final symphony is arguably the most popular of the lot. When it first clicked for me, I just couldn’t get enough of it and listened to it repeatedly for months on end.

I decided to include two stereo picks for this symphony.* The one by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic is so legendary that I felt compelled to include it. Yet I’ve never liked it quite as much as a few others. One of those is by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra – another recording from early in the stereo era. There was less hesitation with my mono pick; a live performance by Furtwangler and his Berlin Philharmonic. The very dark final movement is a difficult one for many conductors to pull off and nobody did it better than Furtwangler.

For many years now, I’ve felt that Furtwangler mastered the first and fourth symphonies like no other conductor has and that the same could be said about Bruno Walter and the second and third symphonies. I’m not sure that will ever change for me.

*I would have liked to have included one of a couple different stereo recordings of the fourth symphony by conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, but neither seems to be available on a single Youtube video.

Published by BZ Maestro

I live outside of Philadelphia and have been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember. After toying with the idea of starting a blog for a fairly long time, the extinction of a food-themed message board that I frequented for years prompted me to finally take action. Thank you for taking the time to check out what I've been up to - and eating. If you've enjoyed what you have read and seen, please consider clicking the "like" button and signing up as a follower.

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