It remains a mystery why Decca, which has rereleased almost all of Kertesz's catalog, would keep holding back on his Brahms symphony cycle -- these overpriced Double Deccas can be found on the used market. So far as I can tell from Gramophone reviews, the cycle was primarily recorded in 1972 and ended in 1973, the year that Kertesz died, age 43. The Second Sym. dates from 1966, however. As the Amazon reviewer notes, the sessions for the Haydn Variations were completed by the orchestra alone. What stands out immediately after all these years is how beautifully the Vienna Phil. plays and how naturally they are recorded. Going up against the formidable Brahms of Karajan and Bernstein on DG, Szell on Sony, and Klmeperer on EMI, a lot was riding on a young conductor.
His Brahms doesn't hew to the character of older rivals; in particular the tempos in Sym. 1 feel a bit rushed, without sufficient time to really settle into what the music means. But critics at the time, noting this, pointed to the freshness of Kertesz's interpretations, and that has to be kept in mind. He strips away the traditional grandeur of Brahms interpretations, and without employing the intense drive of Toscanini (or Szell, at a somewhat lower level of pressure), Kertesz showed that the Brahms First could sound a bit new. The cushiony sound of the Viennese strings is lovely, and yet I miss joy in the Scherzo. The slow opening of the finale has weight but not much mystery or foreboding. Frankly, for all the praise that Kertesz received at the time, this reading could easily be mistaken for Marin Alsop on Naxes -- a skillful, well-judged account without much "face."
The Brahms Second has had no trouble finding good interpretations on disc (oddly, it's the one where Furtwangler doesn't quite pull off his magic, at least not on the EMI cycle from after the war). In Kertesz's hands the Viennese sound of the strings is quite arresting, particularly in the lyrical parts of the first two movements. There's no swooning or exaggeration, however. In the more assertive parts of the first movement Kertesz finds considerable power and "spine," which keeps the score from sounding too pastoral. The second movement is marked Adagio, but in many recordings the underlying pulse feels the same as in the first movement. Here Kertesz rises to his best, expressing the long line of the melody with intensity and supple phrasing; nothing sags or runs on automatic.
In the Scherzo he takes the Allegretto marking to indicate that this music is a dance, and at a quick pace he delivers a cheerful interlude that could be out of one of the Serenades -- the similarity to the Second Serenade is striking. The finale also goes quickly, but Kertesz doesn't make anything of the contrast between the soft opening and the sudden eruption of the main theme, a shame. He stays in tempo for the lyrical second subject, even pushing it a little. So the overall impression of this performance s of a revised Brahms Second that refuses to be sentimental or slow o its feet (David Hurwitz's assessment that Kertesz's Brahms is relaxed and genial, as usual, is wide of the mark). Overall, I think Kertesz had yet to become a great Brahms conductor, but he was certainly a fine one.
The filler is kertesz's well-known recording of Serenade No. 2, which has circulated widely. It has remained a standard recommendation for decades, rivaled only by the young Haitink on Philips, Bernstein on Sony, and perhaps Boult on EMI, if you don't mind his very fast tempos. Kertesz isn't really exceptional, perhaps, but the warmth and beautiful playing found in the symphonies is found in the Serenade, too.
P.S. November 2012 - At long last Kertesz's Brahms cycle has been reissued, on Australian Eloquence, at a bargain price. To straighten out the widely spread recording dates, the cycle began in May 1964 with a recording of the Second Symphony and continued in 1972-73 with the remaining symphonies and the Variations on a theme of Haydn. Recording of the Variations commenced on 1 March 1972, and upon Kertész's passing (16 April 1973), the orchestra completed the recording on 14 May 1973, conductor-less, in his memory.