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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Long considered as a benchmark recording for many collectors and reviewers, 18 Sept. 2013
I. Giles (Argyll, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This disc, now successfully remastered form a 1981 digital original, has always been ranked as among the very finest of recent generations. It is always a doubtful idea to suggest that any one performance of such core repertoire is a definitive performance / recording as at that level personal preferences bring inevitable personal prejudices and inevitable conflict. Such a situation is not helpful to collectors or other interested parties.

Brahms wrote this work at the end of his life. It is normal practice to consider him as one of the most important figures of the Romantic period but this view can be open to question when considering the emphasis he placed on structural content of his work, his detailed use of Classical compositional devices and relatively restrained use of the orchestra that he had at his disposal. There is also a marked lack of narrative or nationalist interest beyond his Hungarian dances. The Hungarian elements to be found in his other works are part of the structure and not generally the main focus.

All of this has been mentioned because it is in the Classical period sense that the listener can best appreciate Kleiber's interpretation/performance with the VPO. This is a very strong delivery of the music with enormous emphasis on the structure. Indeed, it could be described as a very tough-minded view with little evidence of softening or yielding to allow for any Romantic period moulding of the lines or of the emotions. The last movement in this performance thus is a study in the delivery of a strictly formal structure placed as the conclusion of a determined and logical musical journey. This is a plan that would be recognisable in any Classical composer, Beethoven springs readily to mind, and is quite foreign even to the early Romantics such as Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann. Emotional satisfaction, not to be confused with Romanticism, is thus achieved by unflinching formal Classical means.

This is a strikingly formal, even austere, account of the symphony and as such, it stands apart from the rest. There will be those who resist its Classical progress just as there will be those who find it uniquely rewarding and totally appropriate.

Whatever one's personal response, I would suggest that this disc remains one of the great artistic and recorded achievements of its generation. Owning it will enhance and broaden one's understanding and therefore it deserves to be seriously considered as a strong candidate for purchase.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incandescent!, 15 May 2005
At only 39 mins and 41 seconds, this might be thought to be short measure.
Until you hear the performance. Over the years I have tried a number of recordings of this symphony in an effort to find the work I can hear in my head. (Where did that come from?)
Some years ago I bought the Herbert Blomstedt recording on Decca: far too low voltage! I bought Eugen Jochum's, along with Tennstedt's recording of Ein Deutches Requiem. Worth it for the Requiem, but Jochum always pulls the tempi about a bit, and ultimately I felt his performance didn't quite measure up.
The 1972 Boult recording, with Janet Baker's incandescent performance of the Alto Rhapsody, came nearest. At least Boult gets the right voltage for the finale.
Carlos Kleiber has the Vienna Philharmonic which, as you would expect, outmatches Boult's LPO, good though they are. But he also has factor "X" - that deeper undertanding of this ultimately tragic symphony - which, for me, places this performance right out at the top.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unsurpassed, 6 Sept. 2009
I heard this performance a good while ago but for some reason it didn't get to me. I have listened again recently and I can't imagine why not. In fact I can't imagine a greater performance of this symphony anymore. It's so well played, with every part of the orchestra singing and involved but clearly articulated. However the thing that distinguishes the performance is the grasp of structure and overall balance. The effect of the playing and the conducting is an almost volcanic energy and sweep that is really unsurpassed in the many recordings and performances of this symphony that I have heard. It's shattering and exhausting. Somehow when you hear this it seems so obvious that this is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, and the most complete of the four Brahms wrote.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars lives up to its reputation, 19 May 2014
I have only recently acquired my own copy of this legendary recording. Since reading Jan Swafford's biography I am back into Brahms with a vengeance after a few years 'away' as it were.

And yes, I reckon this IS a great perfomance (and I have some other favourites of this symphony). There are too many individual magic moments to point out - even from the manner in which the strings play the opening theme in the first movement. The golden horns at the end of the Andante; the violin tremolandi as the finale reaches white heat; the occasional touches of expressive portamento from the strings, which here sound so natural and idiomatic; the clarity and precision of the phrasing, which is so clearly articulated yet never draws attention to itself.

But the performance is far more than just the sum of beautiful parts. As so many other reviewers have pointed out, it is unerringly proportioned (saving the really big sound for the moments when it's really needed) and combines a songful line with an intensity that rises to fervour in the codas of the first and last movements. I am not bothered that you only get 39 minutes of music on the CD as you cannot put a price on music-making of this quality.

My only slight caveat is that the string sound occasionally gets a bit fierce and glassy, to my ears at least. Would the LP have sounded like this when first released in 1980, or is this the result of re-mastering and transfer to CD? Whatever the truth, it is not a serious issue for me and doesn't detract from my five-star rating.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping Recording, 21 July 2010
I agree with the reviewers above, I too long searched for a recording of this work that fitted my idea of what it should be, now I have truly found it. Kleiber brings a masterful performance. I was won over by the phrasing of the strings in the first movement; beautiful but not overly sentimental.

In my view this symphony above all others needs a tightly held performance or else as with some of my lesser recordings it starts to lose it's shape. This one ticks all the boxes though, and has superb sound too, with slightly bright strings (just as I like them). It's true there should be more on the disc than just this symphony, but don't let that put you off what I see as a definitive recording.

My Brahms symphonic collection of great recordings feels finally complete, with Wand's 1st (1990) and Karajan's 2 and 3 (1964) this record again for me is another disc that is unlikely to be bettered.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A must for a great work, 23 July 2014
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Take a great symphonic work add Carlos klieber and the Vienna Philharmonic and you have a brilliant historic recording of true importance. As with most of Klieber`s interpretations the tempos are taken fast but with total control and musical conviction, astounding orchestral balance with an exhilarating performance. Don`t concern that this is the only offering on the one disc as it is well worth the purchase and shows this great work in a new light from a master musician and despite more up to date versions this recording is unique and sets a standard of excellence.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Easily the best version of Brahms 4th of all time., 17 Jan. 2015
Questor (London, England) - See all my reviews
I have several versions of the 4th symphony.

Without any doubt at all, this is the greatest version of all.

This is like a ray of sunshine and your hi fi will enjoy playing it as much as you will enjoy listening to it.

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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Close to perfection, 19 Feb. 2011
GlynLuke (York UK) - See all my reviews
If you wanted a job done properly, you were well advised to send for Carlos Kleiber.
Beethoven`s 5th? Weber`s Freischutz? Tristan? Traviata? He was a notoriously reticent conductor, making relatively few recordings, but when he did the results were invariably impeccable. A connoisseur`s conductor.
I came to Brahms via his chamber music (it was the lovely piano trios, then the rest) having felt a strong antipathy to this seemingly stodgy composer whose symphonies and concertos sounded, to my ears at the time, so turgid and uninspired. How wrong I was. Overnight I became a Brahmsian, and I haven`t looked back.
Brahms is a composer who rarely if ever seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. The music is the emotion and vice versa. All four of his intricately plotted symphonies have their moments of breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking, beauty. Each is subtly, rather than drastically, different from the others. For me, the 4th is not only his supreme symphonic work but one of the loveliest of all symphonies.
It begins - like Beethoven`s Pastoral or, in a very different way, Vaughan Williams` Tallis Fantasia - out of nowhere: the opening phrase merely occurs, as if we are overhearing a blithe conversation on a balmy day, though with a breeze blowing up.
If a conductor gets the first bar - or indeed the first note! - wrong, he may as well pack up and go home, or at least try another take. I have never seen the score, but it`s pretty obvious when a conductor and his players have the measure of this magical symphony, and it all begins with the emergent, enigmatic, almost languid opening note(s). Kleiber gives it just the right balance of succinct hesitancy. (Not easy to describe music...)
The man and his musicians, the Vienna Phil on suitably masterly form, continue almost as if they are composing the work as they are playing it. Seldom has a composer been in such command of his art as Brahms - we know he would work at a piece "until there is not a bar you could improve on", to quote the man himself. I think Brahms`s music must really test a conductor, so formally organic is its structure, with the emotions held in check. (Bruckner, for example, benefits from a clear-eyed, no-loitering hand on the tiller, such as Boulez with the 8th; Beethoven`s symphonies have had the advantage in modern times of airy recordings by Mackerras, Zinman & van Immerseel, which have refused to over-stress the `heavier` aspects of the symphonies, allowing us to really `hear` the music.)
This disc lasts a mere 40 minutes, but this is no short measure when the music making is of such sublimity as this. Before and during the typing of this review, I have listened to this CD twice through. It is that kind of work, and that kind of recording. It sings!
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine rendering of a great work., 29 Aug. 2013
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Readers will note that I give the date for this recording at the commencement of my review. Those who have problems with the technical excellence of the presentation may have a point. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that some of the finest interpretations of music on record date from a period of the old 78-rpm discs and that no amount of restoration can overcome defects in early recording techniques. That said, I should not like to miss Artur Schnabel's Beethoven piano works simply because the bulk of his recordings were made pre-WW2 on a Bechstein pianoforte!

This recording from 1981 by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic is rightly judged as one of the truly great performances of the Brahms E minor. As I point out in a comment after GlynLuke's review, I have probably listened to more performances of this symphony than to any other; Kleiber's interpretation must rank amongst the finest of these.

In consideration of this I would have to include some live performances made in the early post-WW2 years at the London Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Then the conductors Malcolm Sergent and Basil Cameron used to carry the burden of the performances, unlike the many contributions of today. There was then a traditional Bach/Brahms concert (usually on a Wednesday) conducted by Cameron that always featured the Brahms E minor. Of course, there are no recordings of these memorable evenings, nor was Cameron "honoured" or regarded as a celebrity. What he did have was an intimate knowledge of the work that no doubt benefited from his studies with the violinist Joseph Joachim, a close, lifelong friend of Brahms.

To my understanding the notion of a definitive performance for any musical work is a misnomer. Whilst I would rank Kleiber here along with Toscanni, Furtwangler, Kubelik, Walter, and others, all give us a slightly differing experience of the symphony. In fact I would go further and say that as presented on this CD Kleiber is unmatched.

One thing I do not wish to do with this revue is to dissect the performance into its constituent parts and to thereby detract from the point that this symphony is a supreme masterpiece of musical construction. Instead, I shall make just a few comments on the performance and then go on to give some background that listeners may find of interest when considering this recording.

Overall, Kleiber does not indulge in rubato as was typical of Furtwangler, for example. His choice of tempo for the first movement is perfect thus enabling the music to breathe and develop. (I first became aware of this symphony's stature as a schoolboy in my mid-teens on hearing a fine performance in which the coda to the first movement realized all the energy this remarkable Allegro non troppo generates. This too is fully achieved in this performance with Kleiber.)

Likewise in the second movement (Andante moderato) Kleiber brings out beautiful clarity from the orchestra. Brahms's use of the wind in particular fully justifies the adage that "with Bach one hears the organ, with Beethoven the orchestra, but with Brahms we hear both the organ and the orchestra".

In the third movement the pace is lively but not so much as to blur the massive sound that frequently rises to a double fortissimo. In Brahms's day the tympani may have cut through more effectively than we can expect from its modern equivalent.

In performance the finale should follow with as short a break between movements as is feasible (see below). In a recording this could only be achieved by running the two movements consecutively on the same track, something I have yet to come across. Brahms may have had in mind the raucous ending to his "scherzo" as a means of giving the three trombones the opportunity to "feel" their way into into the finale, their first sounding in the entire work (see below).

There are so many points to listen out for, far too many to mention in a review but one would have to draw attention to the flute solo variation close to the middle of the movement. This is often given as a test piece to flautists auditioning for a place in an orchestra, And before that, the sawing string rhythm typical of Bach is unmistakable.


The Fourth Symphony was committed to manuscript during the summer of 1885 (first published 1886) when the composer was aged 52 and staying at Mürzzuschlag, Austria. (Brahms was a dedicated walker and often chose venues for his physical exercise as well as for composition.) He had obviously been sketching out ideas for the work some time before 1885.

To many commentators the choice of the tonality (or key) of E minor appeared at the time both brave and controversial. Edwin Evans in his extensive analysis of Brahms's compositions writes as follows: There has been much comment on Brahms's choice of E minor for his Fourth Symphony, this key having been generally avoided by Symphonists. Berlioz was especially severe upon it, declaring openly that it was "criard" and of vulgar tendency. Riemann also remarks upon its rarity as a symphony key and can only recall J Raff's No. 9, entitled "Im Sommer"--which by the way he evidently does not think much of-- since Haydn's "Trauer" Symphony in 1772.

Evans then goes on to "defend" the tonality of E minor which would seem superfluous for us today since there followed closely on the heels of the Brahms Symphony in that key symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and later Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and Rachmaninoff.

It is interesting that Haydn should have seen E minor as appropriate for his "Trauersinfonie" or "Mourning" Symphony (No. 44). The Brahms, although hardly a funeral dirge, is not a work of jubilation either (unless one attributes an exhibition of high craftsmanship as a celebration of a certain kind).

That Brahms was conscious of a sense of pioneering with this symphony is evident from the correspondence at the time. Among his chosen confidants was Elisabet von Herzogenberg (wife of the composer Professor Heinrich von Herzogenberg) to whom he wrote on August 29 1885: `Might I venture to send you a piece of a piece of mine, and should you have time to look at it, tell me what you think of it? The trouble is that, on the whole, pieces by me are nicer than I am myself, and need less setting to right! But cherries seldom ripen fit to eat in these parts and so do not hesitate to say if you do not enjoy the taste--I am not wanting to write a bad No.4.'

A similar sentiment was conveyed to the conductor Hans von Bulow who was closely involved in presenting the Symphony to the public. In fact, Brahms himself was involved in rehearsals for the first performance to be given by Bulow on October 25, 1885, after which Bulow is reported to have said (here in translation of course): "Number Four is stupendous, quite original, individual and rocklike; incomparable strength from start to finish." And to my ears and brain this is as reasonable a description in one sentence that you might seek for this enduring masterpiece. (Richard Osborne in his admirable notice for the recording under review quotes from the philosopher Susanne Langer in somewhat more lengthy prose.)

And so to the Fourth Symphony itself. It followed hard on the heels of the Third, as did the Second follow the First. And, as with the first pairing, these two works are sharply contrasted. Originally Brahms had two opening chords for the commencement of the work but discarded them later. As others have noted, the manner in which the work begins has a sense of having already been upon a journey, or, as Hans Keller often remarks in respect of the Haydn Quartets "The beginning before the beginning".

This allegro non troppo (a favoured tempo marking with Brahms), in common time, opens with the first and second violins alone--a single crotchet one octave apart and spanning the octave above "middle C". They drop in the next bar the interval of a major third from where they are joined by the rest of the orchestra, excepting brass, and thus we are launched upon a journey that, if we were to follow it in detail here, would take up volumes. Let the music speak for itself! The "seesaw" effect of this opening theme is clearly related to an episode in the slow movement from Beethoven's late Piano Sonata in B flat (Opus 106) known popularly as the "Hammerklavia" and with which Brahms was intimately acquainted as a pianist.

The movement progresses with seeming effortless invention until we come to a point, so often present in Brahms's music, where the "dreaming" has to stop, so to speak. This is achieved by a change of rhythm and is usually accompanied by upping the volume a little, usually to fortissimo. Shortly after this mood change we are made aware of the opening theme that is now put across with some emphasis. In contrast to the earlier symphonies, there is no exposition repeat; instead one may think of the entire first movement an exposition in its own right that leads on inevitably to the powerful coda.

The conclusion to the first movement is scored for full orchestra upon a semibreve with tympani roll on the tonic E. This is wholly appropriate and makes an interesting comparison with other great symphonists, notably Haydn and Beethoven both of whom tended to end their works with a fortissimo, brief crotchet across the orchestra.

The second movement (Andante moderato) commences with the core motif announced by two horns fortissimo apparently in the key of C major, but this is illusory when we quickly realise the tonality is that of E major. (Again with an ear to history and knowing of Brahms's great respect for the chamber music of Haydn, it may not be beyond the bounds of possibility that he had the idea for this slow movement from the older composer's Piano Trio in D, Hob. XV:24.)

Continuing, the horns are soon joined by the rest of the wind band to expand this statement before the introduction of pizzicato strings at bar 5, by which time the sound has dropped to double pianissimo. The strings continue their pizzicato to bar 29, after which the score is marked arco with the orchestra working towards a typical Brahms dynamic interjection (refer to the first movement) at bar 36 that is to play a major role in the movement's climax.

A master touch has to do with the theme that follows this interjection at bar 41 where the strings sing a theme that can only be described as a mixture of calm tinged with pathos. This theme is to appear later when it is proclaimed with bold affirmation by strings fortissimo (Elgar would have notated this Noblemente) following the repeat of the "interjection" then played double fortissimo by the entire orchestra. Thereafter we have the main opening theme of the movement displayed in all its glory eventually winding down to the quiet, tranquil close to the movement on E major.

In the boisterous third movement (Allegro giocoso in C major), to which a single triangle is modestly added to the orchestral forces, we have for the first time in a Brahms symphony something approaching a scherzo (hitherto he had favoured a gentler approach with a concoction all his own, neither a minuet nor a scherzo in fact). But, unlike the third movement scherzi of Beethoven and Schubert, there is no "trio section"; instead we have a short reprieve from the high spirits in a poco meno presto played quietly and lasting a mere 18 bars before returning to a repeat of the high spirits which in keeping with the work so far has a substantial developmental coda leading to an abrupt ending on fortissimo quavers across the orchestra.

Finale (Allegro energico e passionate):

Although Brahms does not indicate in the score an attacca link to the finale, the interval of time between the ending of the "scherzo" and the trombones' entry should be kept to a minimum. The transition from tonality of C major to that of E minor should come as a revelation, with the trombones sounding in the symphony for the first time. Moreover, retaining the dynamic at fortissimo also gives a sense of continuity towards progressive evolvement of the eight-bar "theme", upon which the entire movement is built.

Brahms, as is well documented, was steeped in the music of Bach so that it is not surprising to find him gaining inspiration for this finale from a Bach Chaconne presented in passacaglia form. (Passacaglia in fact permeates the entire Symphony, but that is another story!)

Of course other composers have used variation form in the finale to their works, notably Beethoven in the finale to the "Eroica" Symphony (No. 3 in E flat) and in two of his string quartets. It is interesting to note that although Haydn made use of variation form a good deal, in only two works does this occur in a fourth movement, and both in an early keyboard trio and a symphony. (Brahms throughout his entire corpus followed Haydn more closely than he did Mozart in the use of variations.)

Brahms's use of the theme is strictly measured and only becomes "freed-up" as we approach the end. To analyse these variations would require another volume to do them justice. Let it suffice to say that the rendering of this finale is the greatest challenge for any interpreter; one may judge the measure of their success by the impression one has when the music has stopped.

The final pages are telling. Brahms at bar 249 writes Poco ritard, then four bars later Piu Allegro. Then to the end at bar 313, it is left to the judgement of the conductor: to inject a slight accelerando so as to bring the work to an abrupt end, or to linger a little? You, the listener, must decide which best suits your understanding of this monumental work.

In conclusion I should like to quote from my review of a recording of Sergie Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony in E minor for the Rachmaninoff Society:

By Rachmaninoff's day it was incumbent upon a composer to make a strong personal statement through the symphony. At least, this is what we are led to believe. But were Haydn and Mozart (and composers before them) less concerned with personal expression through music than were the so-called romantics? Are we not sometimes shocked to find universal human emotion spread out through both time and race? Mozart achieved something obviously tragic in his late G minor Symphony.

But Haydn, who had a different perspective from Mozart where minor keys were concerned, could achieve deep pathos within the confines of a major key work as is obvious in many of his slow movements. Take just three examples: the beautiful largo from Symphony No. 64, the contrasting moods in the capriccio from Symphony No. 86. In the case of Symphony No 99 we even have reason to believe that he was mourning the loss of his dear friend Marianna von Genzinger.

Beethoven in his two minor key symphonies, the fifth and ninth, seems to be expressing a mood of defiance rather than pathos. It is only when we reach Schubert's B minor Symphony (Unfinished) that we find anything suggestive of what Tchaikovsky was to achieve in his two late symphonies. But whereas in the Schubert B minor we have something sensibly cosmic in its grief (to my senses, at any rate) the Tchaikovsky B minor (Pathetique) comes across as a deeply personal utterance. Rachmaninoff never comes close to Tchaikovsky's Pathetique in this sense. The first symphony, for all the personal anguish its composer experienced as a result of a bad first performance, is more a heroic work than a pathetic one. ("Vengeance is mine, I will repay" Rachmaninoff is said to have written on the original score.) The Second Symphony is hardly a pathetic symphony either, and the Third is unique in its blend of reminiscing and bittersweet power.

The tonality of E has never been a popular one with composers. Whilst there is no shortage from all the great symphonists of works in E flat major, few had touched E or E minor (Joseph Haydn wrote one in E minor - the Trauer - and two in E major; Schubert sketched a symphony in E). But it was Brahms who opened the floodgates with his Fourth Symphony.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best recording of this I've ever heard, 13 May 2014
lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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Why quibble when there's nothing to quibble about? Brahms is difficult to conduct, difficult to play. Everyone says so. This is his least charming symphony: it's a terse, brooding, tragic masterpiece, one of the great downers of classical music. It can be played in such a way that you fall asleep, as witness Wolfgang Sawallisch's recording with the LPO. Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic make it sing, unforgettably.

If you don't get Brahms, and there will always be people who don't, try this out. If you still don't get it, the fault lies in you.
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Brahms: Symphony No.4
Brahms: Symphony No.4 by Carlos Kleiber & Wiener Philharmoniker
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