Record Guide: Brahms’ Symphonies

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The Symphonies of Johannes Brahms are among the greatest orchestral works, combining thoughtful form and emotional content in an almost ideal combination. They are an integral part of the standard repertoire of orchestras around the world.

Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons’ 2016 cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra’s own label has a devotion to the music. There’s passion, warmth, but also a basic sense of the structure of the music – it’s never overdone or forced. The Boston Symphony Orchestra also plays with finesse and brilliance. Rarely have the instrumental solos sounded so beautiful.

Otto Klemperer & Philharmonia Orchestra

Otto Klemperer’s cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Warner (1956-57) is like a granite sculpture, but with a crystal clear balance. These are solid and serious interpretations, with something stoic and dignified about them, but there is also an underlying humanity that makes the recordings unforgettable.

Sir Georg Solti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Sir Georg Solti proved to have an excellent ear for Brahms when he recorded a complete cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Decca (1979). Although the interpretations are characteristically dramatic, he also balances the orchestral sound admirably, and these are definitely recordings to live with.

Claudio Abbado & Berliner Philharmoniker

Claudio Abbado has made two complete cycles for Deutsche Grammophon, the second of which, with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1988-90, should be prioritised. These recordings are among the very best he has made with the orchestra. Abbado’s Brahms has an almost Italian warmth and lustre to it, and the interpretations are powerful, but he also manages to maintain an elegance of expression.

Günter Wand & NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester

There are many surviving Brahms recordings by Günter Wand, including three complete cycles with the NDR Sinfonie-Orchester, or NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, as it is now called. All are of the highest quality, but the best is the second on RCA (1995-1997). Wand’s Brahms is characterised by a sure control of the architectural development of the music, combined with spontaneity and drama.

Bruno Walter & Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Bruno Walter’s Brahms series with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Sony (1960) is a classic. Walter had an instinctive understanding of Brahms’ music and brought warmth and humanity to it. There is a wisdom to his interpretations that few others have, and the sound still impresses more than 60 years later.

George Szell & Cleveland Orchestra

George Szell’s Brahms cycle with the Cleveland Orchestra on Sony (1964-67) is one of the very best on record. Szell strikes the right balance between clarity and drama. The interpretations are particularly well done, with sophisticated orchestral playing that is definitely something special. These are in many ways unique interpretations, with a style and elegance that few can match.

Herbert von Karajan & Berliner Philharmoniker

Herbert von Karajan made three complete cycles of Brahms symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker for Deutsche Grammophon. The second, from 1977-78, is the best and most dramatic. In his usual way, Karajan manages to combine a beautiful orchestral sound with great power and weight in the interpretation.

Sir Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the symphonies (2009) is one of his most convincing performances on record to date. Here Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker manage to produce performances of genuine humanity, spontaneity and brilliance. These are interpretations that will be among the most recommended for many years to come.

István Kertész & Wiener Philharmoniker

István Kertész’s series with the Wiener Philharmoniker was recorded in two parts – 1964 and 1972-73 – in brilliant sound on Decca. The Wiener Philharmoniker play with sensitivity and the interpretations strike an ideal balance between the lyrical and the majestic. These are interpretations marked by musicality and maturity. It is as if Brahms is speaking directly to us.

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