Brahms’ Orchestral Performace Favorites

Having interviewed many performances of Brahms’ most well known orchestral works, let me tell you of my bravo renditions:

Symphony 1: Bernstein, NY Phil, 1960
Symphony 2: Kleiber, Wiener Phil (live), 1991
Symphony 3: Walter, Columbia Symphony, 1960
Symphony 4: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orch; 1956

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

German Requiem: Klemperer, Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau; Philharmonia Orch, 1961

Serenade 1: Mazur, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, 1981
Serenade 2: Bernstein, NY Phil, 1968
Vars. on Theme by Haydn: Belohlavek, Česká filharmonie, 1987
Acad. Fest. Overture, Bernstein, Wiener Phil, 1983
Tragic Overture, Levine, Wiener Phil, 1992

Why these performances? They make the music sound like Brahms’ music to me. 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 inject the overall dynamism that is characteristic of great art. Tempi do not drag. Recording engineering places me in the front row of the audience, or on stage; I want to be up close. Sound quality is at least good, which means, to me, no recordings prior to availability of stereo recording technology of the mid-1950s.

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 both expression 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.

The Tragic and Academic Fest. Overtures, and Haydn Variations, are often included as fillers on albums featuring longer pieces. These ‘freebies’ in my library are the only versions I auditioned; I found a pleasing version of each, by Levine, Bernstein, and Belohlavek.

For the piano concerti, my choices are 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. Sonically, these recordings barely meet my minimal requirements; they are included for historical interest, in the absence of any other recordings that appeal to me; I treat them with equalization in iTunes to enable enjoyment, removing muddy bass and toning down harsh treble artifacts. But these pieces await the appearance of another Katchen before being superseded.

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. And his total technical command leaves one awestruck in the more complex passagework, where he attacks the notes with delicious ferocity. His expression and nuance are unprecedented in my experience.

In the LSO’s performance of Concerto 2, Ferencsik shows he is not in Monteux’s league; he does not get the warmth and expression from the LSO that Monteux had done a year earlier with the same soloist. The sound quality is also harsher to my ear, particularly the brass, perhaps part of my problem with it. Ferencsik gives a workmanlike performance mostly, but rises to the occasion in the broader themes of the later movements. Katchen is his mercurial self, a unique blend of technical wizardry and nuance. Yet there seems marginal give and take; I don’t sense conductor and soloist feed off one another. When compared to the legendary 1942 performance of Furtwangler/Fischer, the timings are very similar, but the older one has more character.

In spite of its deficits, the Katchen recording must remain my top-rated reading until I find a more moving modern interpretation. 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.

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

The most recent addition to my orchestral preference list is the Heifetz/Piatagorsky Double Concerto. 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. 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. Had he been slightly more flexible with tempi, this performance would be one for the ages.

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 joins Klemperer 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 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 too much tempo flexibility; some of his rubato moments seem so extreme that they mess with the integrity of the musical structure.

The Serenade #2 is the filler on this Bernstein album, and it also 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 perfectly.

The Serenade #1 was more difficult to discover. I liked the Kurt Masur recording, but he takes the first movement rather slowly. Brahms suggests Allegro molto, which few conductors acknowledge, One that does is Kertesz and his 1967 recording with the VPO is is very fine. But in the third movement, he does not recognize Brahms’ Adagio non troppo request, slowing down the proceedings to no good effect. On balance, Mazur does less harm and offers up a memorable performance, beautifully recorded. His singing phrases and heady instincts for Brahms sustain pleasure throughout.

Many listeners express their fondness of Kleiber for the Fourth, but I find Klemperer just as revealing, and overall the more musical, not appearing to dominate the proceedings, stepping away enough to enable Brahms’ lyricism.  His and his players’ love of the music comes through, and the stereo sound from 1956 is simply superb.

On the other hand, I find Kleiber’s live performance with the VPO of the Second to be top-rate Brahms. 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; 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 value. 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 musicianship.

Klemperer’s Requiem was my first and only. 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 add, 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 is also always under control, guiding the proceedings masterfully.

Bruno Walter is well 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 up-tempo reading with acceptable, if closed-up, sonics. Let’s hear it for Walter’s great sympathy for Brahm’s idiom. Also give a hand for the good fidelity for a recording of its age.

I found another Walter-esque reading of Brahms’ Third, with more modern sound, this a 1978 reading by Karajan and the Berliners. Its timings mimic Walter’s, except that 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 love some of the elements of Abbado’s later reading with the same group, perhaps more lush, sympathetic, and digitally pristine than Karajan pulls off, but Abbado takes the exposition repeat and his Andante and final Allegro drag to my taste, making it too big a production. It seems always a trade-off between quicker tempi and maximal expression; my bravo readings are the ones I find optimizing for both expression and energy. I enjoy the Karajan reading for a change up, but Walter puts tremendous energy into this recording and gets everything so right that his is my go-to rendition.

For me, the Violin Concerto, as with the First symphony, has been difficult to appreciate and evaluate. They are 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 not simpatico with Brahms intent. Hahn and Marriner unlock Brahms writing. Hahn’s playing is exquisite and totally masterful, seemingly effortless precision while capturing the passion of Brahms’ violin writing. She captures Brahms’ phrasing with delightful expression throughout. The introspective, slightly tentative, searching mood 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 perfectly suited to Brahms. 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. I hope she enjoyed playing this piece as much as I like hearing it. The recording places me in front of the soloist on stage, a great vantage point to experience this treat.