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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