Barenboim’s Second Stab At Brahms Symphonies

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

Daniel Barenboim’s first Brahms symphony cycle was disappointingly tepid, despite brilliant playing by the Chicago Symphony. Dare we get our hopes up for this new one? I did, starting with Symphony No. 3, impressed with the conductor’s energized, moderate first-movement tempo and the Berlin Staatskapelle’s euphonious playing that illuminates the harmonic and rhythmic cross-currents in Brahms’ score. (The live recordings offer exceptional spaciousness and detail.) It’s a sound very different from the polished sheen of the Chicago Symphony, with fulsome tonal color, old-word harmonic richness, and plentiful detail. All of which allows you to marvel at Brahms’ orchestral genius as Barenboim moves the symphonic drama forward.

But that’s where the good news ends. Barenboim turns the Andante second movement into an Adagio, making it sound leaden and endless. He does the same in Symphony No. 4’s slow movement. And it’s not just the symphonies’ slow movements: The scherzos of Nos. 3 and 4 feel enervated, where they should be energized. The same is true for No. 4’s Finale, which sounds lifeless compared to Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic. Again, the Berlin Staatskapelle’s handsome playing makes up for some of this, but slow-mo prettiness will only get you so far.

Symphony No. 2 is a little better in this regard, being more “relaxed” than dragging, but Barenboim does not equal the captivating intensity of the similarly-paced Giulini with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Interestingly, Barenboim conducts with far more pep in Symphony No. 1; the Berlin players sound more excited as well, especially in the Finale, where the timpani make some deliciously raucous sounds.

Still, if forced to choose between Barenboim’s Brahms cycles, I would pick this one, but mainly because the Chicago Symphony made much better recordings with Levine and Solti. Also, there’s a certain cragginess to the Berlin Staatskapelle’s sound that’s peculiarly compelling. But if you are looking beyond Barenboim (and you should), go for Abbado, Levine, or the other listed alternatives.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Abbado/Berlin (DG); Levine (DG or RCA); Dohnanyi (Teldec/Warner); Jochum (EMI/Warner)

    Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

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