Top Ear

Comprehensive Review: Brahms 4th Symphony


Leonard Ip writes Voila! This is Top Ear’s first comprehensive, and the work featured is one of the towering works of the 19th century symphonic literature – Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

Brahms looking intimidating on a hair commercial

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is regarded as the pinnacle of his symphonic writing. For everyone interested in the monumental technical achievement of the work, this review must refer to Leonard Bernstein, who gave a breathtaking, phrase-to-phrase analysis of the first movement only on the radio (the transcript, along with the piano score of the musical examples, is published in his book, The Joy of Music). Youtube has it in its entirety: (I’m not embedding it because it will be too space-consuming). One is left dumbfounded at the compositional mastery behind this music after the whole, extraordinarily complex and even more beautiful movement is dissected and explained. Yet Brahms 4 is an essentially tragic work. It is one of the most confident, strongest proclamation of tragic sentiment ever heard. I can only think of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony to rival it in that absolute negativity at its conclusion. It ends absolutely tragically (and grandly), with not one trace of doubt and such strength that points to Camus’  Hero of the Absurd. Right, enough of that ramble. To start with recordings, there is one thing to clarify: every good recording of this symphony has something special for itself, and every one presents a different view at the work. Brahms 4 is, like many great works, so rich and complex a work that no single recording should do it full justice (live experience is another matter). I will have no benchmark recordings (and this review is not full of famous recordings), though there are bound to be recordings that are particularly close to my heart, or those that deserve to be known better.

The Recordings

 Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Overtures Album Cover My first exposure to the work was Alexander Rahbari/Belgian RTV Philharmonic (Naxos). It was particularly close to my heart when I have heard no other recordings of this work, but it isn’t anymore – it’s nothing special. In fact, the playing is sluggish and mediocre and the conception is – no wait here’s something special – the finale is nearly 13 minutes long, and because I was once very familiar with it, I was startled to hear everyone else playing it so fast. On the other hand, though, the sheer slowness makes a surprisingly good case for the grandeur of the music and I wonder why no one has ever tried to do it that way (decently, of course). Here is set that I would recommend for everyone who loves this repertoire. To me, Klemperer’s Brahms symphonies has never been surpassed (though there are some recordings about as good). The tempi are always rock-steady and sensible, and the sound Klemperer gets from the Philharmonia is granitic, taut, extremely solid – all perfect for Brahms. In addition to his drive and indisputable squareness, Klemperer infused the 4th with a sense of lyricism (the prominent, poignant oboe in the first movement, for instance) and never loses grip of the structure. He lets the power gradually culminates in the first movement’s cataclysmic climax, keeping the tempo constant and to great effect – this is true symphonic music. The second movement has an air of solemnity due to Klemperer’s streamlined (but not thin) string sound, and is not lacking in warmth. It feels like a British church, which is wonderful. The conductor shares with the scherzo a certain roughness of character, and the finale is taut, stern and uncompromising – Brahms, Brahms, and Brahms! This is a recording for ages.

This is Furtwangler’s 1943 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – the only of Furtwangler’s wartime Brahms 4 (other recordings he made post-war), issued on Music and Arts. I myself listen to a Japanese EMI transfer, but never mind the labels. With Furtwangler, things get a bit uneasy – the sonics, of course, is not state-of-the-art, and the interpretation requires most attention from the listener to take its fullest effect. But the result, I’m always glad to say, is tremendous and can be found nowhere else. Furtwangler penetrates the music with his elastic tempi, conjuring incomparable power, tension and depth over Brahms’s most serious score. The force of inevitability in climaxes of the outer movements rises to terrifying heights, pushing the music to its limit. Never before, and again, have we been confronted with the core of the music so directly and so emotively. Even in the slow movement, Furtwangler at times produces such heft that it transforms the tranquil string passage (bar 88) into an eloquent, soul-searching threnody. Under Furtwangler, Brahms 4 is a profoundly questioning journey, no longer merely symphonic arguments. Not for the uninitiated, I suppose, but this has to be one or two of the greatest recordings of this work.

Celibidache – again, certainly not something for everyone. But among the non-Bruckner Austro-German symphonic repertoire Celi did in Munich (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann – obviously I bought the Symphonies box set from the new Celibidache Edition), his Brahms was, as a whole, one of the most successful. In fact, I consider his Munich Brahms cycle one of the finest. Celibidache’s philosophy of sound, space and phenomenon works best in the form of the symphony (many reasons for that – wait until I talk about it in another article), and his tendency to smoothen everything – from orchestral timbre and articulation to phrases and paragraphs – matches well with Brahms’s curvy lines. Celi also had a great ear for orchestral balance (for all that rehearsal time!) and led his orchestra to achieve remarkable textual transparency at the densest spot. The opening alone is exemplary: rarely has this piano been so well-executed and well-balanced, like a single, gentle, long breath. The first theme stands out naturally from the violins, and the woodwinds’ soft off-beat chords coordinates nicely with the arpeggios of the violas and the cellos. This is truly fluid musical texture, and it gives a uniquely melancholic feeling that is inherent in the music but seldom played correctly. Celi’s method reveals the architecture of the music clearly, and the climaxes build up massively (with prominent trombones in the finale). A very fine and very special Brahms 4.

Now we have a concert recording. In 1974, the 92-year-old Stokowski led the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a concert, and the main course is Brahms 4. I borrowed this disc from the local library with excitement, knowing Stokowski was sort of a magician who can turn in miraculous performances in unlikely occasions, and I was not disappointed. Stokowski’s tempi are flexible (in a manner completely different from Furtwangler’s), and there is plenty of lyricism even the tempo Stokowski takes for the main theme is rather fast. Above all, the dynamism in this performance is startling: Stokowski whipped up such a blistering coda (with accelerado et al) in the first movement that quite of some of the audience applauded after it ended. There are some ravishing playing from the strings in the slow movement, and the very exposed and powerful horns make a strong impression throughout the work. A memorable concert indeed. This is a stereo recording.

Following Stokowski is Ormandy, who did as a matter of fact took over the Philadelphia Orchestra from Stokowski. This seems to be Ormandy’s only recording of the work, and was done with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1967, here included in EMI’s Great Conductors of the 20th Century series (sadly another extinct series). Ormandy used to be dismissed – for various reasons again – but there is no denying he was a very skilled conductor, and he had a great taste for big, lush, Romantic works. Here he conducts a very tightly-knit Brahms 4 and coaxes from his musicians an extremely sumptuous orchestral timbre. The outer movements are tight and taut indeed, mainly because the dynamics do not change much (except getting louder) and the tempo is almost uniform, but most of all the instrumental groups correspond to each other swiftly and in a very compact manner. I like the tightness with which all the symphonic arguments are presented, though some may find it too stressed. In that case the slightly too reverberant recorded sound will makes it worse. Sometimes a recording is particularly likable because it does well in a certain ‘test point’ of one’s own – here it is bar 33-40 in the finale, where the strings grind out a three-part variation on the passacaglia theme. No recordings I’ve heard realize that deep, intertwining sonority with such despair and yearning as Ormandy’s does. In fact, Ormandy knows a few tricks with orchestral details, and this performance is full of those – without losing the grand, tragic sweep at all. A remarkable sidetrack.

This is Sawallisch’s first Brahms cycle, done with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I hope he did better in his second cycle with the London Philharmonic – I genuinely do because his Schumann cycle is great, and because this one is miserable. Bad playing – bad playing everywhere. The Vienna Symphony sounds like a primary school orchestra. There is no interpretation, because the playing is just so bad – from the start of the fourth symphony the strings sound as stiff as dry breadsticks. The whole symphony goes by straightfaced, like water going from the sink. Blurrb. It ends. Avoid this set, however cheap it may be.

Mercifully, the world is blessed with marvelous Brahms cycles like this one. RCA has released some of Levine’s best orchestral recordings in their budget box sets (Brahms, Mahler). The Brahms symphonies Levine recorded in his early thirties, and they were, like the Mahler symphonies, youthful testaments of his prowess in the repertoire. Indeed, the performances are full of youthful vigour and fire. No worries about musical understanding – Levine’s interpretation of the fourth symphony is no doubt deeply musical. The opening may lack the greatest subtlety, but what follows is a solid, natural-flowing, and superbly played Brahms 4 – the Chicagoans are on top form, with golden, blaring brass, intelligent woodwinds and thick strings, plus a healthy dose of timpani. If you are looking for dramatic power, Levine the opera conductor is the right place to go – climaxes come along with considerable tension and fire. But for an outstanding performance of the fourth symphony, architectural clarity must not go amiss, and it hasn’t under Levine. The grip is apparent in the first movement; the finale builds up impressively and concludes blazingly. Ultimately, the greatest merit of this recording lies in the orchestral playing – what a glorious band the CSO has been! If I have one wish it would be for the strings to be more malleable, but it does not detract from the music making. There is no doubt too that this is first-rate, strong Brahms playing, though I myself feel there could have been more Brahmsian flavour (or wistfulness) overall. The sonics is splended. An excellent modern version.

The penultimate recording here in this review is something special. Giulini is a very special conductor – he seems to have a special charm. Two of his recordings with the Chicago Symphony – this Brahms 4 and his incomparably moving Mahler 9 – make me and many people marvel at how he transforms Solti’s dynamite orchestra into a warm, humane and lyrical ensemble. Giulini’s Brahms 4 really has a certain bittersweet quality, a certain kind of very humane, noble warmth that makes it perhaps the most moving Brahms 4 I’ve heard. The orchestral timbre is never brittle but always elegant and rounded. It still has vigour, but the Brahmsian staccatos never point and stab as some performances do. Giulini lets the music flows naturally, so the climaxes in the outer movements have no extra violence, but he molds the long lines more beautifully and lyrically than anyone else (first movement bar 57 cello melody, bar 95 woodwinds melody, and countless examples in the slow movement). The contrapuntal cantilena starting from bar 88 in the slow movement is played with such noble breadth, such caressing, tremendous love that I thought I wouldn’t regret if I was to die in this music. Unlike some recordings that present the scherzo as a thumping rustic dance, Giulini sounds very civilized and the slightly slow pace he takes for the woodwinds scales starting from bar 58 has a lovely joyful feeling. It never sounds bombastic, rough or overly buoyant, which is usually why I don’t like the scherzo much. This is my favourite recording of the scherzo. Giulini arranged some careful articulations for the strings in the finale, and in the middle section there is the most pristine flute solo on record. The finale on the whole is full of tragic pathos and is topped with a surging, unstoppable coda, thanks to Giulini’s slower general tempo (it times 10:48, whereas most finishes by 9+ mins) and occasional grand gestures (a not-so-small ritard. at the strings’ entrance, bar 132; slight prolongation of the phrase from bar 237-240). I have to admit this is, so far, the Brahms 4 closest to my heart.

Why I have left Kleiber for the end I myself don’t know exactly, but this is for sure: Kleiber conducts the strongest Brahms 4 I have heard, and I would not hesitate to say it is music-making on the greatest level. It’s not the recording closest to my heart, as I would call Giulini’s, but it offers a vision to the work so strong, so unique and so original that it merits my highest recommendation. Along with his Viennese Strauss dances and some Beethoven performances, this recording is a good piece of evidence to prove Kleiber’s preternatural genius. It opens simply, without any special tonal treatment a la Celibidache or expressive touch a la Giulini, but the instrumental coordination is extremely refined (the Vienna Philharmonic shines from the start) and one is immediately drawn into this labyrinth which Brahms, with all his psychological complexity, created in his music. The purity of tone the orchestra produces is stunning – I have never heard a better blend of the horns and the cellos at bar 57, first movement – and it presents the music plainly to the core. Kleiber may not match Giulini in his melodic lines, but he yields nothing in terms of the grading of dynamics (uncommonly exact, if one consults the score) and textual clarity. The first movement sweeps along to its electrifying climax with elemental power, with every orchestral department rock-solid in their work – with playing so splendid that gives one an uncanny feeling of inexorability. Kleiber truly understands the tragic nature of this work: it’s sort of a “Es muss sein!”. The slow movement is rather self-contained and poised and there is no Giulini/Furtwangler sort of inspiration, but Kleiber managed to elicit some vivid playing from the strings, and there is an air of muted communion. At this level of autonomy every move sounds strangely God-sent and (God help me) Mozartean. The scherzo, taken quite fast, is extremely energetic (it can’t be otherwise with Kleiber) and jolly, replete with zesty string playing and a fairly prominent triangle. In the finale Kleiber’s conception glows: it’s nearly the fastest on record (9:12, a mere 2 seconds slower than madman Furtwangler). Kleiber does not allow anything to be lingered upon – the music propels itself forward, and everything sounds purposeful. Fast episodes are played furiously, and the slow, meditative section avoids any dragging. The flute solo is very well played – expressivo indeed, and with a surprising tinge of vulnerability. With this tempo Kleiber keeps the music moving, as if reluctant to indulge in these moments of peace before the storm. The storm quickly takes over resolutely – there is no ritard. whatsoever – and the tremolos surge like angry waves. Kleiber generates incredible tension with so fast a tempo – almost like Furtwangler, but this time it feels much more tightly in control while with Furtwangler the music verges on breaking loose. Again, there is no grand gesture a la Giulini, only direct attack: the final thrust sounds as resolute as it can be. The tragedy is completed. I realize I gave a relatively more detailed account of the movements here and this goes on to show just how compelling Kleiber’s vision is. It’s impossible to overlook this performance with this symphony. In a way, it’s the fullest realization of Brahms 4 – inexorable, resolute, the music says it all.


Having gone through 10 recordings of Brahms 4, one thing gets clearer and clearer: great music is inexhaustible. There are so many great interpretations, yet not one of them can ever be perfect. As listeners, we should appreciate the riches we have enjoyed. Of course, we should also know what worth our time and what do not. Brahms 4 is a personal favourite, so I am going to be looking for more and more recordings. I hope I will find my “ultimate” version, but on the other hand I don’t, because that will limit the music’s possibility.

Anyway there are many recordings that I haven’t covered or listened to, and those that I plan to hear includes Karajan, Bernstein, Wand, Jochum, Solti, Rattle and Mravinsky. If you have any other suggestions or you have different opinion towards the recordings I discussed, please let me know. I am most wanting in contradiction!

I close with a thank you to Herr Brahms.

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

13 thoughts on “Comprehensive Review: Brahms 4th Symphony

  1. Dear Leonard,

    As a not so frequent concert-goer and have yet attempted to explore orchestral music alongside with full score, I need to learn more from you in terms of comparison from the perspective as an ‘ amateur ‘.

    Among those which you put comment, I have much interest to listen to renditions by L. Stokowski ( New Philhamonia Orch. ), C.M. Giulini & J. Levine ( CSO ) and E. Ormandy ( Philadelphia Orch. ), in particular.

    Keep close contact and exchanging !

    Wish you peace, joy and after all health !

    Leonard Man


    11 : 34

    ( Hong Kong

    • Your compliments are most welcomed.

      The Ormandy recording (out-of-print, as I have mentioned) is difficult to find these days. I regret to say I have no serviceable suggestion as to how to find it as I myself borrowed the local library’s copy. The remaining three, as you may know, should be fairly accessible.

      Thanks again for the heartiest comment Top Ear has received hitherto, and for letting me know that my writing has been, after all, seriously read.

      Happy listening!

      Leonard Ip

      • I liked this recording until I compared it closely with Klemperer, Furtwangler and, most of all, the Dresden Sanderling. The Ormandy sounds like a very plain run through after that.

  2. It’s impossible to list everyone, but how could you leave out Szell’s recording with Cleveland?

    • Yes, it is impossible to list everyone, so suggestions are really appreciated. We’ll try to include those recordings suggested if we ever come to write sequels to these comprehensive reviews. Thanks for leaving that note.

  3. Excellent review. If you haven’t heard them, I’d try the Toscanini/BBC 1935 version (much different and more flexible and inexorable/cataclysmic than his NBC commercial recording. I’d also recommend the mono Munch/BSO recording, again much better than his stereo remake, but available only on LP (to my knowledge).

  4. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard Toscanini/BBC – very remarkable indeed. In general the BBC recordings are all mesmerizing (as I came to know them through EMI box, though there are still more issued by West Hill, FYI: I can’t find any information regarding the mono Munch/BSO being released on CD, but the stereo remake (on Living Stereo) is very nice as well.

  5. Surely Bruno Walter’s recordings, with the NY Phil andl ater with the Columbia SO, rate inclusion..

  6. Gunter Wand.

  7. And,I don’t understand how any assessment of the Brahms Symphonies can omit Kurt Sanderling’s recordings. Please don’t read this a a complaint but as a lamentation.

  8. As to the first movement, I found Blomstedt and Gewandhaus-Orchester very good to listen to. However, we do not know how Brahms would have executed it.
    I found your essay very interesting.
    Best regards, Awg.

  9. Hello. very neophyte to music. I have special memories of this 4th symphony. My first ever record was this work with Eugen Jochum and the BPO. I do not see him mentioned here. Have you ever heard him directing the 4th? I lost the record, but found it on Youtube. Then I have some cds with Christoph von Dohnanyi, but I feel like I prefer Eugen Jochum. Not being an expert I can only guess that it is because I got used to Jochum. I would appreciate your comments on Jochum. Regards

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