In comparing four accounts of the first symphony by Giulini/Vienna, von Karajan/Berlin, Klemperer/Philharmonia, and von Dohnanyi/Cleveland, the Giulini is the kindest to Brahms. All accounts of this epic are beautiful, serious, and weighty, but only Giulini goes outdoors and puts a Brahms often rendered fustily in the sunshine. And he does it without resorting to brisk tempos or the energizing ploys of our current crop of conductors (think Harnoncourt, Norrington, Gardiner, Maazel). Nor does he succumb to the enervating but faux monumentality of Furtwangler wannabees (Barenboim, Haitink, Eschenbach). Giulini achieves his energy with expansion not contraction, and with strong rhythmic statement, not a faster waving of his arms. His beautifully spun orchestral textures are simply not heard anywhere these days and are abetted by the kind of sonics I prefer, delivering a solid, powerful bass without boominess, honey-crisp not blousy brass, round and impassioned strings, and richly grained not wiry woodwinds. While von Karajan(1964) strives for monumentality, Klemperer(1958) shoulders and overcomes the agony of existence, and Dohnanyi(1987) shines a laser into the score (undone by a boomy acoustic), Giulini(1991) brims with nobility and joy.
Giulini's Brahms speaks to us from the heart, not from Olympus. Unlike certain Italians a generation younger (Abbado, Muti), who sometimes seem to have gained nordic power and discipline at the expense of Italianate warmth, Giulini is unceasingly expressive. Giulini's luminosity combines Furtwangler's nobility of utterance, Walter's fresh humanity, and Stokowski's orchestral and tonal magic, qualities present throughout this set. Giulini's approach is most revelatory with symphonies 1 and 3. Symphony 4 may strike some as lacking angst but I have never heard its many treasures so fully revealed. However, symphony 2's leisurely finale will not be to everyone's liking.
Thoughts on the tempos: Giulini's unrushed tempos are controversial. One would imagine that slower tempos would add to Brahms' murkiness, but there is never a trace of sloppiness and in these tight performances they actually open up the scores and reveal much more color and warmth than is customarily experienced in Brahms. Those who might judge the leisurely finale of symphony no 2 too slow are probably right -- it misses the festive joyousness Brahms certainly intends. The finale of symphony 4, while ravishing in its textures, also lacks the somber, cumulative, kinetic punch Giulini achieved in his 1970 Chicago Symphony recording. But overall I believe that Giulini has liberated Brahms from a prevailing critical image of a composer in the dumps, or at best "autumnal". Giulini's late Brahms seems more about ripe orchestral detail and a celebration of life and beauty than grand philosophical statement.
Newton has done all of us a service by reissuing this traversal of the Brahms canon in splendid sound at a bargain price. Guilini's/Vienna's Brahms as well as Newton's Markevitch set of Tchaikovsky symphonies 1-6 offer transcendent music-making of integrity and avoid hollow histrionics. They are for the ages and belong in every home and library. In our day of efficient rehearsals and conductor-personalities, encountering performances such as these either in concert or in recordings has become uncommon.