Poor Johannes Brahms, a composer who divides opinion. Ever since his war of words with the Wagnerites, luminaries ranging from Tchaikovsky to George Bernard Shaw have been keen to have a pop. He may have stuck to the old forms, and thought little of eking out every last drop of emotion in excessive operas or colourful tone poems, but he was anything but regressive, and found new ways of expression out of discarded Baroque styles. Even Arnold Schönberg labelled him ‘Brahms the Progressive’ in an essay. In an age that spanned Liszt to Mahler, it was perhaps not surprising that his endless variation and reinvention of melodies and rhythms out of a handful of notes were not considered world changing when compared to an 80 minute long symphony that seems to express a whole universe. Fast forward twenty years from his death, however, and even Modernists like Stravinsky and Prokofiev turned to classical forms as a model for their symphonies – perhaps Brahms had the last laugh after all?
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Orchestra: Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Bruno Walter
Label: Sony Music
Year of Recording: 1960
It’s testimony to a work so deceptively simple on the surface, a score which rewards greater study that many conductors would care to admit, that there has been so few, if any, definitive recordings of the work. A lot of this stems from the tempo and texture. Even a noted Brahmsian like Otto Klemperer lays the orchestration on too thick, with a rhythm too plodding to be considered a classic, despite being more powerful than most. No such issues with Bruno Walter, however, with one of the few recordings from the Indian summer of his career that matches the energy of his earlier works. The tone is warm and rich, the textures light, the tempo brisk, with the brass section really coming into its own. Indeed, the balance between the strings and wind/brass sections in the famous third movement is nearly perfect.
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker
Conductor: Carlos Kleiber
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Year of Recording: 1980
The greatest conductor of the greatest orchestra? That’s a matter of opinion, but he was certainly the most selective in his recording output. In this work, nobody made tragedy sound more beautiful, with a force more elemental in the finale. Again, it stems from the clarity and balance, the richness of the harmonies and the lightness of touch, with a sound thanks largely to the instruments used by the Wiener Philharmoniker. Kleiber still deserves great credit for the fresh vitality of the performance. By comparison, someone more indulgent like Leonard Bernstein for the same orchestra could not light a candle when compared to Kleiber.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
Orchestra: Berliner Philharmoniker
Conductor: Eugen Jochum
Soloist: Emil Gilels
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Year of Recording: 1972
Conducting Brahms’ orchestral movements with forward momentum is one thing, conducting them with elasticity, making the strings soar, is quite another. Sometimes it sounds wayward, like in anything by Wilhelm Furtwängler, but when a conductor like Eugen Jochum marries discipline with flexible tempi, then the result is most rewarding. Yet, the orchestra is only meant to play a supporting on role in a concerto, surely? Not with Brahms, where the orchestra and soloist blend seamlessly, as typified by the third movement with the cellist Ottomar Borwitzky and the exceptional pianist Emil Gilels performing equal parts.
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