This is vintage Brahms and vintage Klemperer, recorded in the late 1950's when the conductor was at the height of his powers it is in many ways a summation of his whole approach to the great German classics: unexaggerated, noble and making every note count. The Philharmonia perform marvels and are set out across the sound stage with the first and second violins antiphonally placed. The orchestra's brass section was, at this time, one of the most rounded and rich on record and it can be heard to great effect in the First Symphony, particularly in the finale where there is no pulling back for the great horn statement of the major theme (and indeed no romantic messing with tempi at all).
Symphony 1: Klemperer starts massively with thundering timpani - a most dramatic conception. There is, as was usual at this time, no exposition repeat in the first movement, but given the amplitude and heft of the performance this hardly matters. All the inner movements go well and the whole thing culminates in one of the most noble and massive finales in the Brahms discography. This set is worth buying for this disc alone! But things get better...
The Second Symphony has also something of the stern and "concentrated" tone that is Klemperer's hallmark. Again, there is no exposition repeat and again this does not matter particularly. The Second is the "warmest" of the four symphonies and Klemperer does not let this go for nothing. Indeed, the rumbustious final movement is exhilarating in a most delightful way - a sort of galumphing humour when compared to Bruno Walter, perhaps, but perfectly valid in its own way.
Symphony 3 also has this "concentrated sound" and is strong on presenting the symphonic form. Here there is the first movement exposition repeat as this is very important in establishing the relative lengths of the movements in good balance. This is a deeply satisfying performance all round.
The Fourth is a relatively stern presentation of what is, after all, a tragic symphony. Again the keywords would be "nobility" and "richness". There is one oddity this interpretation. It occurs in the Scherzo and is a sort of "comma" between the first and second parts of the main theme. Sometimes I feel that this interpretation of the 4th is rather bleak and challenging but that is no reason for not accepting it as a great interpretaton.
I have mentioned the "concentrated sound" that Klemperer achieves. The balance of the orchestra always has the woodwind very forward and the string and brass sonorities are very rich. As an analogy, the Klemperer sound is really as if the music has been printed in bold (compared to other conductors' work): there is a sort of "space round the notes" which is difficult to put into words but is entirely characteristic of this great conductor's style.
The overtures and the Alto Rhapsody are magnificent, but most people will buy this set (rightly) for a most impressive and individual group of Brahms symphonies. These are classic performances and would grace any music collection.