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8 Reviews
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Set, 28 Oct 2003
I feel like rambling for page after page about this superb set. For the last fortnight I have played it non-stop at home, in the kitchen, the living room, on the Walkperson, in the car, at work and anywhere else I have found with a CD player. I must admit that Harnoncourt's reputation for a radical approach to well known repertoire made me a little nervous as I pressed 'Play' the first time - I would generally consider myself an interested observer rather than a fan of his. I needn't have worried. The recordings are ‘live’ in the best sense that they convey a real sense of occasion but are almost devoid of intrusive audio noise. They need to be played at quite a high level, but then they have admirable detail and a good concert hall perspective. The Berlin Philharmonic, my personal Brahms orchestra of choice, must have played all this music so often that they could do it backwards in their sleep, but perform here with real freshness and excitement - the horns in particular cover themselves in glory throughout. One thing that struck me was the sheer amount of detail that I noticed for the first time. Inner parts are clarified time and again, but never at the expense of the main lines. Sometimes it's like having the score unfold before your very eyes and ears. Harnoncourt and his players begin each symphony deceptively gently, and you wonder whether the performance will be unduly sombre, but their command of the architecture is superb. First movement developments build towards their climax with a thrilling cumulative inevitability and the finales of each symphony are tremendously exciting. The end of the first is almost overwhelming, the second bursts forth into glorious sunshine and the third and fourth have a rugged power that is most satisfying. If I must enter a caveat, maybe the 3rd symphony isn't the equal of Abbado on DG, but given how many conductors fall over in this particular work, Harnoncourt's performance is still a fine achievement. Overall, these performances have refreshed and revitalized my love for these symphonies (and the overtures and Haydn variations that come with them) many times over and I can do no more than urge both seasoned Brahms lovers and people buying their first recordings of this wonderful music to get them without delay.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful performances thrillingly caught!, 16 May 2006
I own several performances of the Brahms symphonies and I have to say this one is head and shoulders above the rest: it's the one I keep returning to because it offers something different. The approach is more cerebral yet it still retains that air of excitement and expectation everytime I play it, and for music that I've been listening to for over twenty years, that's a remarkable feat!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Would not be my first choice, 1 April 2010
By 
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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I bought this set based on the Amazon reviews, wanting to extend my acquaintance with the Brahms' symphonies beyond the 1 and 3 I have owned for a while, and have come to admire. Having now heard these I have to say I would probably choose an alternate set, though which I'm in no position to say as yet. I'm afraid that with these recordings the hall and the audience obtrude into the sound just a little too much for me to ignore. The acoustic seems muffled at the low end for the quieter parts, while punch and crispness are sucked out when things get going. The strings often sound a tad glossy and synthetic in a way in which other instruments get lost when they start to dominate. The coughing in the audience I could just about tolerate, but the frequent creaking of seats during the first two discs is just a bit too distracting.

This is a shame because in terms of performance there is a plenty think about. Harnoncourt's No.1 easily trumps my Karajan, insofar as he doesn't succumb to the temptation to discharge the work's entire dramatic potential in the first 30 seconds. But also there is a good balance between the works narrative unfolding and it's underlying unity.

No.2 is new for me. A beautiful hymn to nature with clear references to Beethoven's Pastoral. For me however, the tender and dreamy delivery of the first three movements doesn't quite balance the intensity of the admittedly superbly swaggering finale.

Harnoncourt's No.3 is probably the one I have most difficulty with as it conflicts with expectations set up by my beloved James Levine version, Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Tragic Overture; Alto Rhapsody. The opening movement does not have quite the same brightness and zest, while the heart-breaking third movement somehow loses poignancy by being the more dolorous.

No.4 is also new and I would assess as possibly being the greatest of these masterpieces, but I suspect I will be wanting to explore alternate versions of this before too long. It seems to me that this in particular, is one of those works where interpretation is all, and as I listen to this I can hear places where the tension slackens or picks up a little too abruptly for my taste.

I have no wish to completely slate the set. It is not without interest, and certainly has many very fine moments. But Harnoncourt seems to want to expose the polyphonic structure of the works and thereby their affinities to music of earlier eras, but every now and then it feels to me that this is done at the expense of their dramatic unity.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Underrated Great Brahms Symphony Cycle, 12 Aug 2008
By 
John Kwok (New York, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Brahmsian archaeological excursion into classical music is a mixed blessing, but one where its virtues outweigh its flaws. I commend Grammophone's Guide to Classical CDs for rating Harnoncourt's Brahms symphony cycle as definitive. Here he has gone back to Brahms' original scores, offering invigoratingly fresh perspectives on Brahms' symphonies. Furthermore, he's emphasized 19th Century performance practices that have gone out of fashion, such as playing multiple notes with the single stroke of a string musician's bow. For example, Harnoncourt's reading of Brahms' 2nd Symphony is the most introspective I've heard, without the lush, warm sounds of the string, woodwind, and horn sections that I've come to expect after hearing mesmerizing, emotionally stirring, versions from Bernstein, Haitink and Masur. There are other instances where Harnoncourt's conducting is idiosyncratic, but oddly compelling, throughout this CD set. Of course the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's playing is first rate, yet it is noted more for its brilliance than for any warmth. And Teldec once again records live performances that are as well balanced as any studio recording. If you are willing to take the plunge and hear a distinctive, novel view of Brahms, then I strongly recommend acquiring Harnoncourt's cycle.
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14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine recording but for soloist coughing, 9 May 2004
By A Customer
The Berlin Philharomic at its usual best. Fine sonics - the triangle is particularly crisp and audible in the 4th. The performance is brilliantly conducted by Harnoncourt. I bought this set to complement or replace my ADD Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic set. Being wary of the live recording status, I checked my Teldec/Harnoncourt live recording of Bruckner's 4th and was comfortable at the lack of extraneous noise before setting out to buy this set on sale. During the quieter parts, however, I found the coughing reminiscent of "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and exchanged the set. For those less troubled by repetitive coughing from one member of the audience, it is a fine buy. For the moment, I am sticking with my collection of Karajan set, and individual recordings of Solti/Chicago for the 1st and Bernstein/NYPO for the 2nd - all equally fine performances.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Restored ... classical ... thrilling, 24 Mar 2008
By 
enthusiast "enthusiast" (sussex, uk) - See all my reviews
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Great. It is a cliche but hearing these performances really is like seeing an old master after centuries of grime have been cleaned away from it. Exciting. Fresh. New. Uplifting. You HAVE to hear these accounts.

You may be shocked at the way some of these performances start - particularly 3 and 4 - in a rather gentle way but Harnoncourt goes on to build to formidably exciting climaxes. The strength of these performances is Harnoncourt's restoring of the essentially disciplined and classical side to the works. Brahms was surely the most classically minded of the Romantics and his symphonies come out shining from Harnoncourt's approach. Note that I am not talking about a downsizing of the type that Gardiner and others have attempted.

I have heard and own many versions of these works and Harnoncourt's seems to me to be very special in their ability to say something fresh and new and deeply true about these wonderful works: few conductors in any age are capable of such an achievement. And three performances at least from this set - the Third and Fourth Symphonies and the Haydn Variations - are truly great performances. The others are also uplifting and enjoyable and well worth having.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cool Brahms, 9 May 2008
By 
Mr. Mark A. Meldon (Somerset UK) - See all my reviews
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Everyone babbles on and on abouth Harnoncourt's Brahms symphonies and, ahem, they are right! Excuse the analogy, but it's like hearing this music after it has been through the car wash.

What used to put me off Brahms (there is no stopping me now) was the old stodgy recordings made in the 1950s and 60s. Harnoncourt and the Berliners are just not like that here. OK, it's not that radical - maybe Boulez should have had a go before he retired - but fresh and sprightly stuff. You still need to hear Walter, Sawallisch, and maybe Szell, but these 12 year-old recordings most likely lead the pack.

Except.

Maybe its just my ears, but the sound quality is not too hot. Although "live" there is hardly a hint of an audience being present, but the sound is a bit, well, "mushy". Its not critical, but a tad disappointing.

Essential set though!
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1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good recording, 21 Dec 2010
A Kid's Review
this is the best recording of the Brahms cycle I have ear.
As I am not a musician, so I could only say the recording-work it is really the best I have.
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Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4
Brahms : Symphonies Nos 1 - 4 by Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
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