Brahms: The Complete Symphonies; Tragic Overture; Haydn Variations
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If the Four Symphonies have their own personalities, ranging from the exuberance of the First to the brooding of the Fourth, then Giulini fills out such facile summaries with the fullest possible sense of these works as human dramas, sun and shade from bar to bar, in which the middle two symphonies must rank among his greatest achievements on record.
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Giulini continued to conduct Brahms until he was about 90, doing Brahms' 1st with a Spanish Youth Orchestra before his death. He died at 93, if I remember the biography, Serving Genius. He did an early 60's set with the Philharmonia that I wish EMI would make available today. I have the truly outstanding 2nd and 3rd of that set, but wish to have the 1st and 4th. (If you know where I can get them, let me know.) He also recorded excellent performances of the 1st and 2nd with the LAPO and had numerous singles, e. g. #1 with Bavarian Radio Symphony (Best performance of it in the world, to me), #4 with the CSO (another best performance) and the LPO (equally good). His biography says he conducted Brahms 1st 85 times. Did he love this music?
Carlo Maria Giulini was also one of the great conductors of the 20th Century. Not the only one, but certainly one of them, belonging alongside the Toscaninis, the Beechams, the von Karajans, etc. In addition to his Brahms, get his Verdi. He grew up with the two. He conducted Brahms for more than fifty years. I can list recording after recording on which he has few peers. No one took the pulse of Bruckner (try his 2, 7, 8, or 9) or Brahms or Verdi better than CMG. But let's talk about this set of Brahms.
CMG knew that speed does not make musical velocity. He also did not try to help composers by change of marked tempo. He thought the music should be played the way the composer wrote, directed, and generally intended. Let the composer rise or fall on his own. No need to rush this or that beyond directions. He also knew how to see the music come together as a whole before he started. This set of separately recorded Brahms symphonies (Overtures/ Variations) illustrates that well. Start to finish, see the whole thing.
A lot of conductors want to rev up Brahms. Not Giulini. Not even the younger Giulini, who had a poetic grip on the whole thing even in those years. He brought Brahms forward powerfully on his own speed and at his own direction. Powerful performances! His earlier performances were a little faster than these performances, except for # 3. These are generally slower than one may have previously experienced them, but as we listen to the layered unfolding of these masterpieces and the glorious playing by this great orchestra, his last recorded vision brings conviction that springs anew. More deeply. Invigoration follows as one finally hears all the parts of the orchestra singing a love song for one of their favorite composers. With a beloved's last baton .
Giulini's Brahms speaks to us from the heart, not from Olympus. Unlike certain Italians a generation younger (Abbado, Muti), who sometimes seem to have gained nordic power and discipline at the expense of Italianate warmth, Giulini is unceasingly expressive. Giulini's luminosity combines Furtwangler's nobility of utterance, Walter's fresh humanity, and Stokowski's orchestral and tonal magic, qualities present throughout this set. Giulini's approach is most revelatory with symphonies 1 and 3. Symphony 4 may strike some as lacking angst but I have never heard its many treasures so fully revealed. However, symphony 2's leisurely finale will not be to everyone's liking.
Thoughts on the tempos: Giulini's unrushed tempos are controversial. One would imagine that slower tempos would add to Brahms' murkiness, but there is never a trace of sloppiness and in these tight performances they actually open up the scores and reveal much more color and warmth than is customarily experienced in Brahms. Those who might judge the leisurely finale of symphony no 2 too slow are probably right -- it misses the festive joyousness Brahms certainly intends. The finale of symphony 4, while ravishing in its textures, also lacks the somber, cumulative, kinetic punch Giulini achieved in his 1970 Chicago Symphony recording. But overall I believe that Giulini has liberated Brahms from a prevailing critical image of a composer in the dumps, or at best "autumnal". Giulini's late Brahms seems more about ripe orchestral detail and a celebration of life and beauty than grand philosophical statement.
Newton has done all of us a service by reissuing this traversal of the Brahms canon in splendid sound at a bargain price. Guilini's/Vienna's Brahms as well as Newton's Markevitch set of Tchaikovsky symphonies 1-6 offer transcendent music-making of integrity and avoid hollow histrionics. They are for the ages and belong in every home and library. In our day of efficient rehearsals and conductor-personalities, encountering performances such as these either in concert or in recordings has become uncommon.
Truly exceptional, these involving and intensely beautiful recordings give immense rewards. Listening now to the third movement of no 3, I know there's no other version that can touch me like this one. Very slow indeed, but such comparisons of minutes and seconds become irrelevant to such an accomplishment. Autumnal is a word that comes to mind. You will want other versions too, but this is indispensable. The Vienna strings sing like angels.