21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
My feelings about Bernard Haitink are mixed. He had a great orchestra at his disposal in the RCO, and a hall with wonderful acoustics along with top-flight Philips engineers to record under, yet many of the recordings I've heard from him, despite sounding great, tend to be too neutral. His studio Mahler cycle is representative: the orchestra is certainly superb, and the readings are huge and plush, but they don't have the force of great personality behind them. Conversely, Haitink's Brahms symphony cycle from the 1970's, the cornerstone of this box set, is excellent. The First is passionate and craggy, the Second (a symphony which I've never been fond of) manages to make the most of the material, the Third is classically structured in the first movement and lovely in the third movement without excess sentimentality. The Fourth is a real knockout, not in the Toscanini mold, but dynamic and perfectly paced. The shorter orchestral pieces are all well-played too: the op. 11 Serenade, which is sort of a hybrid in that it's half-way between a chamber piece and symphonic work, receives a decidedly symphonic reading from Haitink; the Haydn Variations communicate a tension more often found in the concert hall than a studio session. Indeed, it's one of the high points of this set.
The three "blockbuster" concertos are another matter. The violin concerto with Henryk Szeryng, a great violinist and a good Brahmsian too (his sonata traversal with Rubinstein is excellent), is way too mellow for my taste. Everything flows along like a gentle stream through a pretty patch of forest and while it no doubt makes for pleasant listening, I ask, where's Brahms? Listeners are directed to any number of David Oistrakh's supreme recordings including Brahms: Violin Concerto; Mozart: Sinfonia, or David Oistrakh. The double concerto with Janos Starker, on the other hand, fares much better; there's more of a dynamic approach to the music, more Brahmsian muscle.
If my first exposure to Claudio Arrau was through listening to either of the Brahms piano concertos included this set, I would probably conclude that his reputation for stodginess and overstatement was well-deserved. Fortunately, the many great Arrau recordings in my collection prove otherwise. In any event, I've never taken to Arrau's drawn-out treatment of the First concerto - not his relaxed EMI recording with Giulini and especially not this recording with Haitink which is even flabbier. The conception is meant to be a fusion of poetry and grandeur, which is fitting for this concerto which is more like a symphony with piano, however, there is almost none of the drama or youthful ardor that should be present here, just a series of almost congenial sounding episodes that build up a little tension which quickly dissipates. Both Rubinstein-Reiner and Gilels-Jochum adopt similar approaches, and while Rubinstein's is definitely preferable, his recording still misses the mark. My first choice for a great Brahms D minor is Leon Fleisher's classic recording with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra followed by Rudolf Serkin's, also with Szell: Leon Fleisher Plays Brahms; or Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1; Schumann: Introduction & Allegro.
Arrau's reading of the Brahms Second concerto fares somewhat better, but it doesn't begin to compare to his live recordings, especially his 1963 performance with Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra: Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Schubert: Three Piano Pieces, D946. Here Arrau delivers a propulsive reading that's everything his studio recordings aren't - huge weight, iron-like structure, and technical brilliance. It's my first choice for the Brahms Second (even with mono sound), followed by Serkin's recording with Szell: Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2. (I would add that Fleisher's Brahms package on Sony includes the B flat major concerto, and while his reading has many admirers I find it underpowered, especially compared to his magnificent D minor.)
One can hardly expect to be satisfied with everything in this package given that there are seven discs covering fourteen large scale works, however, there is some glorious playing here recorded in uniformly good sound. This set is worth the price for the symphonies, double concerto and orchestral miscellanea alone especially if you can pick it up from an amazon reseller, like I did, for just over twenty bucks.