There certainly is no shortage of excellent Brahms cycles; indeed the short-list of solid cycles is anything but short. Towards the bottom of the list of recommended cycles are the entries by Georg Solti and Marin Alsop. It may come as a surprise to many that some of Solti's best work with Chicago was his Brahms cycle. His Third was really something; true, he showcased the orchestra's famous brass somewhat gratuitously, but there was no shortage of excitement. The First was predictably craggy, edgy, and muscular (with first-movement expositional repeat). The Second was almost shockingly successful, Solti delivering a truly memorable account. The low point was the Fourth. While the finale was played to the hilt by the Chicago band, Solti really missed the subtleties of the first two movements while the scherzo sounded more heavy than ironic.
Alsop's cycle peaked with a strong but lyrical Third. Her second was flowing, and solid, while the outer symphonies were solid. She was clearly well-versed in Brahms' idiomatic language, but her readings lacked the hard-edge romanticism found in other cycles.
Towards the middle of recommendable cycles stand Marek Janowski's cycle with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra and Gunter Wand's NDR cycle. Wand, a master of German romanticism, supplies a welcome balance between the romantic and the classical in his four outings with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra on two discs. Still, as far as cycles go, the conspicuous absence of the overtures and the Variations on the St. Anthony Choral makes this cycle less-than-ideal. On the other hand, Janowski's cycle comes with the variations and eight Hungarian dances, all in SCAD format.
At the top of the recommended list stands a trio of fantastic cycles. Eugene Jochum's cycle with the London Philharmonic on EMI is a cycle that offers exceptional clarity, brilliant playing, and unyielding energy. The finale of the Second Symphony has never been matched for sheer explosiveness while his First, Third, and Fourth symphonies are simply stunning. Either of James Levine's cycles (Chicago on RCA or Vienna on DG, both deleted) are the benchmark for listeners who desire passion above all else. Indeed, the Vienna performances, taken from a series of live concerts, are not the last word in orchestral perfection, but there is a visceral energy to the performances that is refreshing in this music. The studio recordings from Chicago are more controlled, but are recorded in early RCA digital sound. The violins are excessively steely, the brass bright and ever-present, and the performances as a whole lack a sense of depth and color.
But my favorite Brahms cycle has always been Christoph von Dohnanyi's Cleveland cycle. Performances of this caliber are rare, even from this source, where orchestral perfection and precision is married with readings of the utmost excitement, energy, and power. The Cleveland players deliver for Dohnanyi technically perfect performances that have a shocking amount of orchestral clarity, balance, and weight. The players give their music director everything for which he could possibly ask, allowing him to surrender to his interpretations.
There are no highlights in this cycle - the level of consistency is remarkable - but Dohnanyi's Third has always been regarded as one of the three or four reference recordings of the symphony. And rightfully so. Rarely are conductors been able to elicit such an unclogged sound from an orchestra on modern instruments while maintaining such a high level of focused energy. The brass work in the first movement is stunning while the wind parts all register with appropriate clarity. The appearance of the coda is violent and awesomely effective. The two central movements balance each other nicely; the andante flows naturally, never dragging, while the poco allegretto features some wonderfully full-bodied playing from the strings. The finale is stunning from start to finish. But it is the passionate build-up to the recapitulation that is so special about this performance. That the orchestra could create such an explosive sound while still maintaining an appropriate sense of balance is truly a testament to the quality of the orchestra under Dohnanyi's tenure.
The Second is equally delightful. The first movement, with expositional repeat, flows naturally but never sounds long. The horn work is mellifluous, the developmental climax is quite satisfying, and the coda is appropriately whimsical. The adagio is passionate but never wallows in emotional excess while the little allegretto simply smiles from the speakers. The finale is a wondrous romp. Dohnanyi highlights the music's boisterous nature but never looses sight of Brahms' serious undertones. The second theme, with it's famous "Scottish Snap" is sumptuously played by the strings while the coda features some full-bodied playing from the lower brass (Decca always had trouble capturing the lower brass at Severance Hall, no worries here, however).
The first is equally magnificent. The introduction opens proudly and leads into the allegro, where Dohnanyi and his Cleveland players seem to have an unlimited reserve of stamina and energy. Dohnanyi makes a convincing case for omitting the expositional repeat by highlighting Brahms's perfectly balanced exposition - development - recapitulation sonata structure. The andante is shaped beautifully in Dohnanyi's hands, leading to an almost spiritual closing cadence. The orchestra is all smiles in the allegretto, featuring some truly miraculous wind playing - the sectional clarity is simply stunning. But it is the finale that defines a performance of the First, and by this standard Dohnanyi certainly produces a performance that stands side-by-side with the best. Indeed, Dohnanyi's Cleveland First is very similar to Wand's Chicago First (one of the greatest performances ever lavished on the C-minor symphony) but features even more explosive, incisive playing with an overall better sense of balance, structure, and control.
Dohnanyi's E-minor Symphony is one of the few conceptions that correctly captures the transition from start to finish. Like Carlos Kleiber and Kent Nagano, Dohnanyi is able to highlight the architectural genius of this, Brahms's most magnificent symphony. His first movement is appropriately intellectual, but never sounds overly clinical, studied, or academic. The andante is played like a true romanze, featuring stunningly full-bodied horn work. The horns deliver an equally magnificent sound in the third movement, the only true symphonic scherzo the composer ever wrote. Dohnanyi correctly captures to bumptious energy of the music but never succumbs to the tendency towards pompous banality that inflicts so many other performances. Best of all, Dohnanyi delivers a finale that is second to none - his concentration throughout is shocking. What is so special about this performance is how Dohnanyi is able to highlight the uniqueness of Brahms writing. The music is, at its most basic, a passacaglia, a Spanish dance based on an ostinato bass theme. However, Brahms uses the passacaglia theme for a set of thirty otherworldly variations. However, he structures these variations in such a way as to create the illusion of sonata form, complete with exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. Never has a performance captured the multi-facetedness of the writing like Dohnanyi does. It also does not hurt that the playing and energy throughout is unyielding, sustained right through the final chord.
The overtures are equally delightful. It's nice to hear the Tragic Overture played with conviction. It is a mature work that deserves more performances like this - powerful, energetic, but well-balanced with a keen eye on the underlying sonata form foundation. The Festival Overture is quickly paced, which robs the music of some of its humor. It's not surprising that Dohnanyi would highlight the more serious aspects of this work, but the playing is top-notch and the closing passages are nothing but thrilling. Dohnanyi does not indulge the overture's inherent "lightness," making a successful argument for the music's rightful place as one of Brahms's most successful compositions.
The Variations are, simply put, the best on disc. Like in the passacaglia, Dohnanyi masterfully highlights the various episodes while still maintaining an appropriate musical arch. The final passages are awesomely effective; all the while, the playing and concentration is second-to-none.
As for the violin concerto, everyone will have their own personal favorite performances, from Heifitz's no-nonsense performance with the Chicago Symphony under Reiner, Shaham's brilliant performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker under a (surprisingly) alert Abbado, Bell's Decca recording with Dohnanyi and Cleveland, to Rachel Barton-Pine's recent Chicago Symphony recording that is a perfect marriage of energy and lyricism. Thomas Zehetmair may not be as well known as some of the other violinists that have recorded this concerto, but his performance, married with Dohnanyi's brilliant accompaniment, is certainly equal any of the better performances on disc. Furthermore, unlike most other romantic concertos, all four of Brahms's concertos are essentially symphonies with a soloist, so it is paramount that the orchestra be on the same level as the soloist. Here, Cleveland plays the music to the hilt, delivering the perfect base for Zehetmair's fine finger work.
The sonics throughout are clear and consistent. The playing is sensational. And the interpretations stand at the top. There really is no finer cycle. Highly recommended.