Brahms’ Orchestral Performace Favorites

Having interviewed many performances of Brahms’ most well known orchestral works, I jump to my feet to applaud:

Symphony 1: Bernstein, NY PO, 1960
Symphony 2: Kleiber, Wiener PO (live), 1991
Symphony 3: Karajan, Berlin PO, 1978
Symphony 4: Furtwangler, Berliner PO; 1949

Piano Concerto 1: Monteux, Katchen, London SO, 1959
Piano Concerto 2: Ferencik, Katchen, London SO, 1960

Violin Concerto: Marriner, Hahn, Academy of St. Martin in the Field, 1991

Double Concerto: Wallenstein, Heifetz, Piatagorsky, RCA SO, 1961

Serenade 1: Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, 1981
Serenade 2: Bernstein, NY PO, 1968
Vars. on Theme by Haydn: Belohlavek, Česká PO, 1987
Acadademic Festival Overture, Bernstein, Wiener PO, 1983
Tragic Overture, Wiener PO, 1992

German Requiem: Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau; Klemperer, Philharmonia Orch, 1961
Alto Rhapsody: von Otter, VPO, 1992

That’s 3 votes for Bernstein, 2 votes for anonymous, and one vote each for Furtwängler, Monteux, K;emperer, Karajan, Kleiber, Rajter, Belohlavek, Ferencik, Marriner, and Wallenstein. [Note, anonymous is a non-person whose art survives without attribution.]

Viennese and Czech orchestras appear prominently above. These Danubian lands produced music that had great appeal to Brahms. And because the Danube and its peoples adopted the rootless Brahms in his early maturity and provided him a home, a community, and a culture that adored him and that he appreciated in return, perhaps these orchestras offer a continuing expression of reciprocal love toward their esteemed countryman.

While Brahms never visited England, his music has enjoyed success there at least equally to his continental success. It is thus appropriate that four English orchestral performances appear above.

General Remarks

Why the particular performances above? They are the performances I have experienced that allow the music to sound like Brahms’ music to my ear, that fully capture his unique voice. Further, in general I prefer that:

  • interpreters do no harm to the music by their performance practice
  • performers demonstrate love for the music above love for themselves
  • conductors reveal all the parts in good balance, capture the emotional shadings I find in the music, and infuse the overall dynamism that is characteristic of great performance art
  • tempi never drag
  • sound quality is at least good, which means to me, with very rare exception, recordings made after availability of stereo recording technology of the mid-1950s
  • recording engineering places me in the front row of the audience, or on stage. I want to be up close, to hear the smallest nuances of the composition.

Brahms consistently wrote music that challenged his audience. Many express confusion regarding the continual multi-part counterpoint in which his lyric themes are embedded. To the lesser skilled in the audience, this high art form is perceived only as a nuisance, as ‘muddyiness’ that obscures the tune one wants to hum along with. But for Brahms aficionados, who can hear and appreciate multiple parts in parallel, the more light the conductor can shed on these contrapuntal elements, the more enjoyable the performance. To my mind, Brahms is the unequaled master of such technical wizardry, contributing to his unique musical voice. It all should be heard clearly.

There is no such thing as a perfect performance. All is relative to the listener’s expectations, tastes, and musical sophistication, and the performers’ ability to maximize expression, clarity, precision, and energy. My unique expectation of Brahms’ art is best captured by the above selections. This list changes considerably over time, as I experience more, and consider more deeply.

Perhaps I should quit now with the words, and let these performances themselves completely define to the listener my ‘current’ point of view regarding Brahms performance standards.

I will, however, continue on here, as an experiment to see if I can contribute any useful insights, on a piece-by-piece basis, that might further my own understanding of ‘musical perfection’. But I recommend my audience stopping here; start listening now, and maybe return here only if you are left wondering why on Earth I would choose thus and so. And that is to be expected; I often wonder that myself.

Note the remaining is a work in progress, a bare start on lifetime opus. Ultimately I will want to more firmly ground my observations in music theory, and in examples of specific elements in which I find enjoyment beyond what other performances provide.

Katchen: Piano Concertos

For the piano concerti, my choices are unduly dictated by my favorite interpreter of Brahms’ keyboard works, Julius Katchen (a role in which Katchen continues to experience wide acclaim). He plays as if he is hearing the music anew and falling in love with it all over again. The sonics of these recordings meet my minimal requirements; their additional benefits are historical interest and true appreciation of Katchen’s skill with Brahms. In the absence of any other recordings that appeal to me, I choose to listen to these, which I treat with equalization in iTunes to enable enjoyment, removing muddy bass and toning down harsh treble artifacts. Compromised as they are co pared to recordings from 25 years later, these pieces serve me until the appearance of another Katchen.

I find Katchen’s interpretations of Brahms’ solo piano works and piano-accompanied chamber works equally incomparable, with only a couple of tempo anomalies to mar a perfect record. They are so well recorded that no future improvement will likely be possible, to my ear. I feel sorrow for all those Brahms lovers of yore who were born too early to experience Katchen’s playing in the mid-1960s. Join me in celebrating these recordings.

Monteux: Concerto 1

Monteux is splendid in Concerto 1, encouraging great warmth from the LSO and ‘going big’ when Brahms demands it, producing a great range of emotional content. Katchen’s playing of the softer themes is as one would expect, introspective. The dominant themes are rendered with authoritative feeling, jaunty when demanded. His total technical command leaves one awestruck in the more complex, energetic passage work, where he attacks the notes with delicious ferocity. His expression and nuance are unprecedented in my experience. So many of the greatest we lose too soon.

Ferencsik: Concerto 2

In the LSO’s performance of Concerto 2, Ferencsik delivers the goods almost as convincingly as Monteux. The warmth and expression from the LSO that Monteux had evinced a year earlier with the same soloist are here as well. The sound quality of the recording is slightly harsher to my ear, particularly the brass.

Ferencsik gives a workmanlike performance in the opening movements, then rises nicely to the occasion in the broader themes of the final movements. He captures all the emotion in the score, but sheds no new light to my ear regarding Brahms intent and craft. The tempi overall seem right on the sweet spot that balances energy with thoughtful expression.

Katchen is his mercurial self, a unique blend of technical wizardry and nuance. The give and take between soloist and orchestra is exemplary. As is typical of Katchen, his playing does not separate the piano from the orchestra. His playing in the less energetic sections darts in and out of view, as rays of sunshine through clouds. I also prefer the sound quality of his instrument to many others, more bell-like than metalic-percussive.

I learned other respected reviewers valued a much slower version by Barbirolli/Barenboim from 1967. This goes against my notion that Brahms usually benefits from up-tempo energy, but since nothing else I could find was working for me, I interviewed this performance. I enjoyed the bits I have heard, but not enough to acquire it. Others tout a legendary 1942 performance of Furtwangler/Fischer, with similar tempi. I have not heard it, but know the badly dated sonics would render the piece of academic interest only.

Hahn; Marriner: Violin Concerto

The Violin Concerto, as with the First symphony, has been difficult for me to appreciate and evaluate. They are both, in parts, too austere and detached, and under an unsympathetic baton, are found missing a human scale. Those problems are swept away when a performance is encountered that unlocks Brahms’ songful nature. Here again, consistency captures my heart.

I have auditioned many beautiful performances that get marred by some less than tasteful interlude, be it an oddball cadenza, a jarring tempo, or a dip into performance artiface that to my ear is neither compelling, nor simpatico with Brahms intent. Hahn and Marriner unlock Brahms writing. The recording places me in front of the soloist on stage, a great vantage point to experience this treat.

Hahn’s playing is exquisite and totally masterful, seemingly with effortless precision, while capturing the passion of Brahms’ violin writing. She sings Brahms’ phrasing with delightful expression throughout. The introspective, slightly tentative, searching mood she invokes during the Joachim cadenza is just right for me, straying far from the usual pyrotechnics. The playing in the Adagio is too lovely for words.

Her tone is wonderfully pure, albeit slightly less full-throated than some others. Her timbre results from some combination of bowing technique, instrument, and choice of strings. No matter why it is thus and so, her tone is well-suited to Brahms symphonic textures (although likely less so in, say, the Hungarian Dances).

Marriner is the complete supportive partner to the proceedings. He and his players cause the music to sing as beautifully and passionately as Hahn plays. Impressively done. The soloist is remarkably musically mature for such a young age. She shows she is a Brahmsian at heart, my Katchen for the violin.

Heifetz/Piatagorsky; Wallenstein: Double Concerto

The most recent addition to my orchestral preference list is the Heifetz/Piatagorsky Double Concerto, Brahms’ peace offering to violinist Joachim, whom he had unavoidably offended some years earlier. Much as I love some other (slower) performances that preceded it here, such as the Szell/Oistrakh/Rostropovich offering, Wallenstein is unique in his quest to unlock Brahms from the chains of slow tempi. He moves the proceedings along with great vigor, and the performers seem to relish and play off the added energy.

And oh, those performers, way the best I have heard play the double concerto. Being a concerto, the proceedings are primarily about these marvelous soloists. And even better, these soloists are mainly about Brahms’ music. Wallenstein complies and keeps the orchestra (a pick-up conglomeration of NY Symphony and other NY musicians) in a supporting role, until he hits his stride in the buildup to the final first movement cadence, when we see it is an orchestra to be reckoned with.

Wallenstein was first cellist in Toscanini’s NY Symphony, and Toscanini, a cellist, suggested Wallenstein transition to conducting. In this performance, one might dismiss Wallenstein as mere metronome on steroids. But the overall effect is sufficiently refreshing to compensate for the few breathless moments where expression is compromised. Perhaps Wallenstein could have been more transparent in interpreting the accompaniment sections, as some of the counterpoint almost vanishes from audibility. Perhaps he could have been slightly more flexible with tempi. Yet, on balance, this performance is one for the ages.

Kurt Masur: Serenade 1

This was the youthful Brahms’ first work composed for the orchestral instrument. It is amazingly Brahmsian to my ear, suggesting his genius was inherent; he was here already in possession of a unique musical voice, not copied, not learned, and that continued, unchanging, across his years. Brahms had no fad periods, no changing course to respond to outside influence. His music was his persona, his blood. It was high art.

I discovered Op. 11 via the Kertesz performance, and then added the Belohlavek performance. Both conductors’ way with Brahms showed a love of the music and facility with his idiom. But their handling of the adagio non troppo movement is one of life’s great mysteries; they both seem unconscionably slow. Under my ‘do no harm’ criteria, neither Belohlavek’s nor Kertesz’ performance can be considered for my playlist.

Masur’s performance is widely praised, so I acquired it. His Adagio was 3 minutes faster than Kertesz’, so there was hope. Thanks to all that recommended this performance. It drags a little to my liking in the outer movements, 1, 5, and 6. But it is lovingly played with great expression and clarity.

Masur offers a neoclassical viewpoint, and emphasizes a somewhat punctuated dotted rhythm style.  The reining in of tempi is not severe enough to qualify as harm, and perhaps I can learn to enjoy a ‘stately’ version (but I’m still feeling that intense need to grab the stick and wave it faster).

The Menuetto is performed delightfully as a slow, delicate, stylized dance; Brahms was neo-classical at his core and this is likely true to his intent. But again, the Scherzo allegro is frustratingly reined in, unscherzo-like, as is the final Rondo allegro that never gets to take off, as it seems it should.

Overall, the sound quality of this recording is simply marvelous: spacious, as in uncompressed, lots of headroom. It’s audio candy, which also happens to showcase a conductor who demonstrates heartfelt connection to this music. So I keep coming back.

Bernstein:  Serenade 2

Bernstein was not on my list for a number of years; I found his later performances too idiosyncratic, Bernstein-esque. His vocalizing on the podium drove me to distraction. But now he is unique as the only conductor appearing more than once on my list. When he could get over himself, as in his early career, Bernstein’s Brahms is pure enjoyment.

The Serenade #2 is the filler on a Bernstein album, from where it jumped onto this list. This is an oddly relaxed, flowing piece, liltingly written, largely in dotted and treble rhythms, for small orchestra (Brahms booted out all the violins), giving it a delicate, reflective mood, a little melancholic. But the final movement is bouncy and bright, Brahms showing us his true colors after all. The NY soloists and ensemble provide a lovely performance, and Bernstein captures the moods of this music as I also experience them. Bernstein bumped the Kertesz version off the list.

Bernstein: Symphony 1

The First, one of the great ‘chestnuts’ of the classical symphonic oeuvre, has always been one of the more difficult of Brahms’ works for me to get into. It was in my ‘seldom-listened-to’ category until I encountered Bernstein. He makes it much more approachable and interesting for me, for reasons I am still evaluating.

My first guess is that it seems more human in scale and more romantically expressed under Lenny’s early baton. Brahms’ lyricism finds full expression here, and the weight of the First really needs it. My only quibble is an example of idiosyncracy, employing too much tempo flexibility; some of his rubato moments seem so extreme that they mess with the integrity of the musical structure. I hope I can get to the point of understanding the validity/necessity of such liberties, because they border on harm.

Kleiber: Symphony 2 (Wien Live)

Of the Second, Kleiber’s live performance with the VPO (on DVD) ended a long search for a performance that pleased me through and through; it is top-drawer Brahms, meaning as good as it gets, and I scraped the sounds off the DVD into iTunes. For a reason that eludes me, the frequency response of the unequalized sound was almost unlistenable at volume. I played around with EQ curves in iTunes and decided to create a new curve, Loudness for Aging Ears, a variant of the standard loudness EQ. Sounds great now to my aging ears.

The missing ingredient in most recipes for the Second is energy. Compared to the standard treatments that are merely expansive and ultimately boring, Kleiber adds dynamism. Perhaps, because it is a live performance, where he seems to enjoy himself more, the performance gains a special patina. His tempi place him in the mainstream, but there is nothing mainstream about his energy; fortunately, he shows the good sense to skip the exposition repeat, which makes so many first movements seem interminable.

Kleiber has another recorded performance of the 2nd, a monaural recording of extreme wonkiness, with the winds recorded vividly and the strings recorded as if they were in a bottle. It is overall considerably faster and has many things to like in spite of its substandard recording values. The juxtaposition of these two recordings highlights the degree to which Kleiber continually explored his own relation to various pieces. It also indicates to me that Kleiber was a situational artist, where mood and environs played as much a factor as did his intellectual musicianship.

Karajan: Symphony 3

Along with Klemperer, Bruno Walter is regarded as a supreme interpreter of Brahms. His third with the Columbia SO was my first recording of the Third, and for decades lead the pack to my ear, from standpoints of Brahms appreciation and up-tempo readings. Let’s hear it for Walter’s great sympathy for Brahms’ idiom. For the Third, he treats his ensemble almost as a chamber orchestra, and the music benefits from intimate surroundings.

I have found another, less intimate reading of Brahms’ Third, with more modern sound, this a 1978 reading by Karajan and the Berliners. Its timings mimic Walter’s, except the Andante delightfully strolls at a faster pace.  Like Walter, his disdain for the exposition repeat will allow me to enjoy a symphony I have heard hundreds of times without hitting me over the head with the repeat. Amazon’s lead reviewer says “These 1977-78 recordings are Karajan’s best Brahms–better than his somewhat mannered digital set. The Berlin Philharmonic, as ever, is amazingly smooth and accomplished, playing with great class without losing any power… –Robert Levine“. I enjoy the Walter reading for a change up, but Karajan is now my go-to rendition. This version shows Karajan, like Walter, able to be comfortable in and expressive of Brahms’ idiom.

Furtwängler: Symphony 4 (Wiesbaden Live)

I have heard Brahms performed as never before, being transported into a rarified space unlike any other musical experience. Furtwängler’s Wiesbaden live performance offers a magnificent conceptualization of Brahms’ highest art. The sound is not great (although extraodinary for its time); but the demonstrated love of Brahms’ music allows one to not even notice.

Klemperer was my first experience with Brahms’ Fourth, and remains a favorite. He gets so many things right and the Philharmonia was a singing instrument then. Klemperer reveals much sweetness in music, where others find mostly austerity. Recently, however, I have joined with the many listeners who express their fondness of Kleiber and the VPO for the Fourth. I resisted for a while; I find Kleiber less intimate than Klemperer with this music, but equally revealing and musical. While more inclined to infuse his own character into the proceedings, he steps away just enough to enable Brahms’ lyricism.  The recording is all one could wish in spaciousness and energy, with vastly better sound than technology could muster a quarter of a century earlier for Klemperer.

But once one hears this Furtwängler interpretation, other discussion is relegated to a minor sidebar. Furtwängler’s first few bars show how uniquely masterful a performance is in store.  Of course there are eccentricities, e.g. temporary tempo extremes, frequent  tympani prominence, coupled with hardened sonics of limited fidelity and live performance background noise, but none of it detracts from this greatest expression of Brahms’ musical language, from elegaic to introspective to congenial to spirited to fiery. Brahms structural craft has never before been so clearly revealed to my ear.

The original recording is monaural and has seen many editions, but finding one still in print is a chore. Thank you to Fuyuhiko Sasaki  for posting a simulated stereo version on Youtube. What a delight to find that much improvement in the sound. Perhaps not everyone’s taste, but this version has jumped into my Brahms playlist.

Overtures and Variations on a Theme

These pieces are often included as fillers on albums featuring longer pieces. Such ‘freebies’, already in my library, are the only versions I auditioned. I am very pleased to have found a great version of each, without needing to go farther afield. Try them; you’ll like them.

Belohlavek: Variations on a Theme by Haydn

Written in 1873, The Haydn Variations comprise a theme that is probably not attributable to Haydn, followed by 8 variations, and then a finale. So a better title is St. Antoni Variations, after the name of the thematic source. But there is a nod of the head to Haydn by Brahms in the Finale, through use of a brief phrase from the Clock Symphony. This piece is only the second composition of orchestral theme and variations known; the first was by Saliere, about 45 years earlier.

Bernstein: Academic Festival Overture

Brahms was awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Breslau (not bad for a man with an 8th grade education). This overture, composed in 1880, was his thank you to the University.

Brahms was going to just write a thank you note, but the composer who put forward his name for the honor insisted he must make a grander gesture in the form of a composition (but please, not one of your notoriously densely-orchestrated ones). So Brahms, tongue-in-cheek, composed a short piece based on student drinking songs and other ditties. But he crafted it so well that it undoubtedly impressed the academics as well.

Tragic Overture

Written the same year as the comical Academic Festival Overture, the Tragic is the opposite side of a thespian mask, the grim face. Brahms’ reason for creating these two one movement opposites in the same summer can only be speculated. We now know he could do it, and that may be all the reason there was. There is no known event that inspired this overture. Both overtures are marvelous examples of musical structure. Brahms was flexing his powers here.

I take no notice of the conductor. The art matters; this person not at all. The Wiener Philharmoniker deserves all the recognition for this very fine performance.

Klemperer: A German Requiem

Klemperer’s A German Requiem was my first and only recording. I bought the record album in the early 1960s, and since upgraded to CD. Everything about it pleases me, but particularly Schwarzkopf’s wonderful soprano voice, pure and free from all the kinds of coloration that most soprano’s deem necessary to inflect on the proceedings, always under control (never fff for added effect), with exquisite nuance and shadings, and so emotionally evocative, she always brings a tear to my eye. Klemperer delivers a performance infused with control, power, and deep feeling.

von Otter: Alto Rhapsody

Again, recognize the Wiener Philharmoniker for a strong performance and Sophie von Otter as an excellent vocalist. My favorite vocalist for this part is Kathleen Ferrier, a true contralto, but her 1940s recordings simply do not sonically make the grade.

See also my musical analysis of this piece.