With the lasting memory of Haitink's first Brahms cycle in my head--it's with the Concertgebouw on Philips--I know he can be a great Brahms conductor. Over the years, however, he's become slower, less emphatic, more reflective. Brahms fits that model, too, but you have to be in the mood for 'autumnal' interpretations, as critics like to call them. This Brahms First is extremely well recorded, and the LSO plays with real commitment--the vibrancy in the string playing is very convincing.
On the other hand, the musicians aren't really being stretched. We get more inner drama than from Sawallish, Jochum, Muti, Eschenbach, and Chailly. Since those cycles are admired by ohters, I must give Haitink four stars for climbing to a higher standard but after a great beginning, he lets the second motto in the first movement slide into dulness, and the Scherzo feels too ordinary. It's like that throughout, wonderful moments followed by unconvincing lapses; that's true of Celibidache, too. Losing the inner tension of a Brahms symphony is never good, but even though Haitink doesn't soar to the heights he set for himself in his first cycle, this is the best of his third one.