As usual, Matthies and Kohn have managed to make another excellent volume in the Naxos's Brahms Four Hand Piano Music series. Their one piano, four hands rendition of the symphonies found on Vol. 6, 7 and 8 are gigantic accomplishments by themselves. But these two piano versions are incredibly symphonic in sound with the doubling of piano registers. Having been so familiar with the one piano version, many differences of phrasing and tempo are noticeable to my ears. While most of these differences were good, one may also nitpick with a few.
Overall, the two piano version of the Third Symphony is played with an identical interpretation as the one piano version. But in these two piano arrangements, Brahms bulks up the textures, allows each piano the freedom to work separately on sonorous effects and thus highlights on some of the nuances not heard in the one piano version. The first movement is a success; I would rate it superior to the one piano version with its raw power and orchestral heaviness which a pair of pianos can surprisingly emulate so well. The Andante and the Un poco allegretto are also passionately expressed; the inner voices of these tender melodies are clearly accentuated in this two piano version. In the last movement, the piano duo breaks through with herculean strength and merciless volition. Two pianos seems so much better than one here.
My only disappointment lies in the delivery of the main theme in the Fourth Symphony's first movement. For some reason, the guttural bass harmony that capitalizes on parts of the theme seems lighter here. In the one piano version, the duo was much more inclined to allow those deep chords to echo longer, like an abyssal pulse. It's a minor gripe when the rest of the movement is so sensationally played and articulated. And despite my little nitpicking, the rest of the symphony is executed with jaw-dropping virtuosity. Most notable is the robust last movement: the sinister opening is wonderfully rich and dark through the timbres of two pianos.
Bottom line: While I think it's vital to explore the one piano versions of these symphonies, Matthies' and Kohn's two piano rendition is on another plane. By the sheer force of two pianos, Brahms's grandiose and noble ideas are unfurled with fantastic results.