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on March 14, 2004
Herbert von Karajan made many dearly beloved recordings of some or all of Brahms symphonies several times in his lifetime. Two complete sets are worth noting more than the others though. The recordings heard on the set reviewed here, and the recordings made in the 1960s. The set reviewed here was made in the late 1970s. At that time, DG was in the habit of using very close microphone techniques. Someone there thought "the more the merrier" and placed microphones as close to the orchestra as possible. The result is a sound that is very dry, almost entirely lacking in accoustic reverb. I dread listening to these recordings. They seem one dimensional. There is no depth. For example, the listener cannot tell if the timpani is right in front of the conductor, or in the back of the orchestra. The 1960s recordings are entirely different matter. They sound warm, three dimensional, lifelike in comparison to the 1970s. The 1960s recordings are not completely available as a set, to my knowledge. You can get #2 and #3 together (Amazon asin # B000001GBU) , but that CD is s very early remastering done in the mid 1980s, and is marred by digital graininess. For a good example of the 1960s set though, get the recording of #1 that is coupled with the Schumann #1 in DGs more recent "The Originals" series (Amazon asin # B000001GQ5). If you love Karajan's Brahms, this is the pinnacle to aim for. If only DG would issue all of the early 1960s Brahms recordings Karajan made, we who love his interpretations would be in heaven.
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on August 12, 1999
I'm a big fan of Karajan, and even though he was recently voted the #1 conductor of the century by a major classical magazine, it seems that he didn't work wonders with Brahms as consistently as I would hope. These aren't bad recordings, but with the many fine Brahms cycles that are now available, I would not recommend this set. The first symphony is not as crisp and clearly articulated as Karajan's 1964 version, which is perhaps the best on record. The second symphony lacks grace, even though it has plenty of fire. You just feel like the Berlin group is churning away in the finale. The third and fourth symphonies did not make much of an impression either. Like I say, I love Karajan--but these recordings just don't do it for me! Claudio Abbado's digital recordings with the same orchestra are fabulous, and I love Solti's version of the second--so maybe the rest of the works in his set are equally enjoyable. I have not heard Karajan's earlier versions of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Maybe they are better. I hope so!
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HALL OF FAMEon July 26, 2001
To his credit, Herbert von Karajan obtained a lush, warm sound from his Berlin Philharmonic that was almost as fine as the Vienna Philharmonic's. A sound which is absent in today's Berlin Philharmonic. No where is it heard better than on this two CD set from Deutsche Grammophon. However, I wouldn't rate it as one of the truly great Brahms symphony cycles. Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, and Kurt Sanderling have offered more inspired, more riveting accounts of Brahms' symphonies with orchestras in Amsterdam, Boston, New York and Dresden. Even Harnoncourt's recent Brahms symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic sounds more dramatic - as well as innovative - than Karajan's. Karajan gives us technically perfect readings of this music that lack much of the drama associated with Brahms' scores. Perhaps his best account is of the 4th Symphony; only here does he give a riveting, dramatic interpretation of Brahms' last symphony. Unless you are a fan of Karajan's, I recommend skipping this set and acquiring any of the ones I mentioned above, with highest praise going to Haitink's, Masur's, and Sanderling's versions.
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on December 12, 2001
If you like your Brahms in a melancholy mode, lushly recorded and nuanced to the max,(and I do!), this Brahms is for you. Karajan's approach is to these four symphonies so unified as to perhaps be regarded and overdetermined and sterile, but for me they evoke a variety of emotions that few other recordings do, and there are times when I listen to both CD's at a sitting, finishing, with the peerless Third. It's a fine experience.
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on August 3, 2013
I concur with the lead reviewer in that the recording decisions taken by DG for these performances are deplorable. The BPO sounds as if they are playing in an attic. The sets from the 60's and 80's are both clearly superior.

As far as interpretation goes, this set is my favorite, though Karajan always gets 5 stars for Brahms. Here Karajan aims for maximum torque and impetuosity, but not so much that he rushes like with the adagio in the 1st from the late 80's. This approach is the exact same one as those of the Bruckner symphonies he did in 76 and the EMI Wagner from 75, all of which are miraculous. They all sound brutal, violent and heavy, though the heaviness lacks the faceless stolidity of Bohm, for example.

By the mid-late seventies and throughout all of the eighties, Karajan's BPO had reached a level of pefection that surpassed all preceding orchestras and will probably never be matched again. They blast right through the terrible recording quality.
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on September 9, 2011
Schumann once described Beethoven's Fourth Symphony as a slender Greek Maiden between two Norse Giants - that's crap if you ask me but even so: the adage lives on. Similarly, Karajan's 1978 Brahms cycle could be likened to a middle child; it has always suffered by comparison with the superlative '63 cycle - not least sonically - whereas the '86-88 cycle has attracted attention because of the performances of the last two symphonies where fatigue beset both the conductor and his orchestra. Elsewhere, Osborne fails to mention this cycle in his biography on Karajan: the silence is telling.

Nor does the Original Image Bit Processing overly revamp the performances. I had the original CDs and there is no marked improvement. In certain instances, the sound is still pancake flat. More on that later.

But what of the interpretations themselves? Karajan was well known for ossifying an interpretation once it had been settled in his mind - even so, the wind blows where it wills - or not.

First, an overarching point: the Berlin Philharmonic play magnificently. At this point in time, they had as much thrust as a Saturn V Rocket. They are almoners of ecstasy. If anyone could have kept up with Furtwangler in the Brahms Third, it was the line-up of the Berlin Phil that Herbie used for this performance of the Second.

Everyone knows that Three is hard to pull off. There is an exquisite ambiguity in the first movement: is it an exposition of power or valediction? The Gramophon is normally caustic towards Karajan in the Third but they hail this performance "as satisfyingly virile and forthright reading. There is no exposition repeat, but the first movement is in every other respect conveyed in masterly fashion . . . . Throughout the work, in fact, the music's pulse beats pretty strongly." I agree. Much like the contemporary Schubert Ninth on EMI - a work which he likewise labored over - Karajan threw caution to the wind and let fly. It may not displace the Furtwangler in the last analysis but my god it is a thumper. The first violins cut through the choppiness of Brahms' passagework like the prow of a Greek trireme.

Little needs to said of this Second. Karajan is a master in this work. Not one of his performances on disc is anything less than superlative. Just listen to the last movement - it is virtuosity incarnate. Not even Furtwangler surpassed Herbie in this symphony. The only rival is the '86 remake Brahms: Symphony No. 2 / Haydn Variations.

There is not a lot wrong with the First here. It is frequently beaten with a stick to the effect that Karajan was fresher in the '63 alternative. If so, it's marginal. The leitmotiv of the work `per ardua ad astra' (through Adversity to the Stars) is fully encompassed in the finale. The heaviness of the orchestration is clarified. Much like the Second, Karajan was always a master of this symphony, his one relative failure being the mushy version he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 1960s. His last two renditions - one studio in 1987 (Brahms: Symphony No. 1) and one live in 1988 (Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht) - are craggily prophetic like Michelangelo's statue of Moses.

The real problem with this set - and it is a relative one - comes with the Fourth. The two inner movements are fine. In the last movement, the intensity dips - and the same could be said of the first movement. Both Furtwangler (Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Haydn Variations / Furtwängler) and Kleiber are faster and more ferocious than Karajan and that adds to the drama. All in all, this is a compelling performance of the Fourth but a Sibylline utterance it ain't.

Back to the sound. This is going to sound unsophisticated in the extreme but the answer is this: crank it up. Yep, just turn it up and blow your speakers. For whatever reason these performances shed most - if not all - of any flatness at a high volume. And it also evangelizes unbelievers in the vicinity.

In short, this is a top notch cycle. It may be harder and more brutal than the '63 cycle but Brahms can withstand this approach.
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on November 29, 2012
Have owned these on vinyl ,cd and now by download. Each purchased 15 years apart. the MP3 is clearer. Realizing the new recordings are getting rave review, I will still defer to these, there is just something here which makes a tear come to my eye.
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on January 5, 2015
While maybe not the greatest interpreter of Brahms, Karajan delivers very well in this recording. All four symphonies have plenty of power and lyricism. The Berlin Philharmonic is excellent as always.
The first three symphonies are very good, though probably not the best recordings out there. I found some parts of the second and third to be mundane. Otherwise I have no complaints.
As for the fourth, this may actually be one of the best recordings of the symphony on record, especially the second movement.
I'm happy to recommend this set to anyone, though if you want the very best of the best, look at perhaps the Solti record.
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on July 12, 2001
One gets the sense with these recordings that something is wrong. Now my tastes have always ran more towards the Weimar school (Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler) than the Liepzig school (Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms) when it comes to Romantic and post-romantic music. As a result, I trust my critical abilities less with a Brahms or Schumann performance than a Bruckner or Wagner performance. Nevertheless, upon first hearing, something was wrong with these performance. The hesitant timpani strike at the openning of the 1st symphony, the rush to get through the difficult opening movement of the 2nd symphony, and the liner notes that apologized for Karajan's approach( "one senses that Karajan is finally able to relax in the 2nd symphony" which I interpret as apology for the smooth and sterile 1st symphony) all suggest that something is amiss. Though the curmudgeon Brahms certainly lacked Schumann's Dionysian side, I can't get over the hunch that Brahms did not have in mind these slick and smooth performances that Karajan hands us. Not that these performances lack drama. The opening movement of the 3rd and the final movement of the 2nd certainly show drama. What they lack is the consuming intensity and fury that Brahms tempermentally shared with Beethoven. Perhaps what deprives the music is the nagging sense that every passage is played legato, or Karajan's tyrannical need to be in control, or even more, his fear of slipping into vulgarity. The liner notes go out of their way to assure us that Karajan's polished product is the farthest thing from vulgarity. Though Brahms performed garishly can be blush-inducing, one wishes nevertheless that Karajan would lighten his grip a bit let the more agitated elements and churning passages written into the score come to the forefront a little more.
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on April 4, 2012
It's taken years for me to appreciate the Brahms symphonies. I've always loved the piano concertos and violin concerto, but somehow the symphonies always seemed less tuneful and passionate to me. My opinion hasn't changed in that regard; however, these symphonies contain a world of beautiful and effective music - I like them. The recordings I have previously listened to were primarily BBC productions. (BBC Music Magazine). BBC performances tend to be dull, stodgy, and rather gutless - I think it's a British thing. Anyway, these performances are gorgeous, well-played, and well-recorded. I can find no technical issues with the recordings whatsoever, despite common complaints from listeners concerning DG engineering in that era. If you want Brahms symphonies, I don't think you can beat these renditions - especially at this budget price.
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