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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Movingly true to Brahms - superbly conveys the human condition, 27 Mar 2012
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This review is from: Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works (Audio CD)
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been one of the world's best orchestras for some decades. But by the end of the Solti era, it has become almost a self-parody - the legendary power of the brass sections still utterly precise but now almost cruel and mechanical. When Barenboim took over as Musical Director in 1991 (he stayed until 2006) he set himself to humanize and tenderize the `beast', and this 1993 recording of the Brahms symphonies, overtures and Haydn/St Anthony variations was one of the early demonstrations of how well he'd done.

The precision of the Chicago players is sensational, but also the balance between different parts. Solo lines, say for the leader, are clearly differentiated yet never dominate. In this the musicians are aided by a wonderfully natural recording ambience, neither echoing nor too close.

You might think they'd sound a little dated, but not at all. The core warmth and generosity of orchestral sound that is so special in Brahms is here in abundance. Barenboim's attention to exactness in the score is superb too - crescendos that are often made to go to sfz or fff in other recordings are here carefully graded, and I've never heard the diminuendos in the 3rd movement of the First Symphony better realized. Barenboim clearly had a satisfying time with the Chicago musicians (though it could sometimes be hard work), and says of them, "Nothing is routine for this orchestra ... the members have never lost the passion and joy of the musician: the one who plays out of sheer love for music."

What I particularly enjoy about these recordings on repeated listening is that the sound never blares or assaults. Brahms' sometimes massive tuttis can often be made to sound monolithic; here they are played as harmony of voices rather than as strident or martial gestures (particularly fine in the final bars of the Second Symphony) - and there is none of the bellowing over-echoing timpani that dominates so many performances. Here the famous opening of the First is not an assault, but the steady opening of a massive vista: it really sounds like Brahms finally unveiling the incredible music he had been struggling to get out for 20 years, paralyzed under Beethoven's shadow. I grew up with the Klemperer recordings, but now find it difficult to listen to the thundering timpani and stern sound of his performances.

I greatly admire Abbado's recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1992, where the performances combine a subtlety and intelligence of phrase with a fabulous intensity of the moment. (In 2008 BBC's Building a Library put Abbado's Brahms Third at the top of their list; the price of this set, though, is one many will find prohibitive.) But for me these Barenboim recordings have become like an old friend, where repeated hearings deepen the pleasure. Sometimes in live performance, particularly as a pianist, Barenboim can sound rushed, impetuous or overly casual in performance, though I would say he is such an intelligent and brilliant man that the problem is usually that he's trying to do too much around the world every day! But in these recordings, the performances are measured and above all balanced: the intense logic with which Brahms deliberately honed a new consummation of the classical style in historical contrast with the new extremes of Liszt and Wagner is very evident. For example, in the first movement of the Third Symphony, the compressed, dynamically contrasting phrases are allowed to shade and complement one another without each phrase being over-worked as well. Less trying means more meaning.

I would say a great recording of these wonderful works should reflect Brahms' character, and in this Barenboim's desire to introduce a new vulnerability to the Chicago orchestra is a perfect match for Brahms. I sometimes notice reviews referring to Brahms' `virility' or `masculinity' as a way of commending a particular performance, but anyone who knows of Brahms' experiences as an adolescent, playing piano in brothels and being teased and mocked by the prostitutes, having a slightly effeminate face well into adulthood (eventually covered by the well-known massive beard) will realize that for the rest of his life he had a very damaged, albeit courageous masculinity. He was a man of deep contradictions, so to me it seems very important that a performance accurately reflects them, keeping as true to the score as possible and trusting Brahms to shine through. More than any composer, Brahms reflected his dreams and doubts, longings and resignation, aspiration and humility, spirituality and realism; and this is why it seems right to use the (over-used) word `human' of his music - it expresses the human condition in all its aspects. I find Barenboim and the Chicago players `get' this superbly.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best yet, 31 Mar 2007
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Daniel Hornby (Middlesbrough, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works (Audio CD)
This was the first Brahms set that I have bought. I have been lucky enough to hear a lot of the other recordings that have been made of the symphonies, and I fully recommend this to anyone wanting an excellent set of these fine works. What Barenboim brings to these works (overtures as well as symphonies) is a fine balance between meaningful expression and outright aggression. These aren't the most fiery I've ever listened to, but I believe the tempos are perfect for each of the works on the set. Good alternatives to this set are Karajan's with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1977/8 and Abbado's set, also with the BPO from 1993.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Aimez vous Brahms?, 8 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works (Audio CD)
A truly sympathetic rendition. It makes you realise what splendid music Brahms wrote. Really pleased with the package, a good selection of extras
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 14 Dec 2014
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This review is from: Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works (Audio CD)
Excellent.
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Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works
Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 & Orchestral Works by Daniel Barenboim & Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Audio CD - 2005)
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