Brahms: The Four Symphonies—DG Limited Edition 180g vinyl reissue

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I usually write music reviews, especially classical, with my classically-trained hat on, commenting on performance, interpretation, comparables, etc. My audiophile nature kicks in at times and posts commentary in each review, for sure, but the main event is always the music.

For this review, it’ll be primarily about the sound.

What is the lover of classical music, Brahms, von Karajan, the Berliner Philharmoniker, and especially of reissue vinyl, getting from yet another version of their legendary performances? Karajan’s Brahms cycle was released originally on vinyl by Deutsche Grammophon in 1964. There were variations/pressings of the vinyl, both individually and in box sets, then on DG CD, followed by lots of different releases in that form. More recently, streaming, and now the limited edition vinyl reissue.

The set

This was Karajan’s first Brahms’ symphony cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker on DG. The vinyl reissue is from a new remastering of the original tapes. The lacquers were cut at Emil Berliner Studios, the same studios responsible for Sir Simon Rattle’s very successful 2017 Berlin Phil direct-to-disc DG Brahms cycle deluxe box set ($530/each from a limited pressing of 1833 copies—you guessed it, Brahms’ birth year). This Brahms cycle is also a limited, numbered edition, but with more available (2250). So, you’ll be all in for about $100 including shipping. The 180g discs were pressed by Optimal.

Not quite the grand Rattle/Brahms book that came with his set, but the 12-page-booklet we do get comes with original liner notes and is fairly comprehensive.

As usual with DG vinyl reissues, the set includes a voucher with a code to download the digital audio files (MP3) of the full album for free. I’m guessing you’ll pass.

The cover art is absolutely stunning, with Handsome Harry and his Newman-like blue eyes adorning the cover. At least Brahms gets the lead this time. On some of the original vinyl sleeves, Brahms took third billing behind conductor and orchestra, such was the team’s star power in those days.

The symphonies were recorded between Oct 1963 and September 1964 with Karajan’s usual gang, producers Otto Gerdes and Hans Weber and engineer Günter Hermanns, all gathering in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche. The set has four LPs—each symphony on its own disk. Total playing time is 160:12.

Performance

There’s nothing my descriptions will add to the thousands of positive words already written about this seminal set of Brahms symphonies. Beginning with Karajan’s 1963 million selling Beethoven symphony set with his Berlin band on DG, the team set the benchmarks for orchestral standards for mainstream Austro-German repertoire. Karajan’s releases were causes for celebrations (in most quarters) especially those of us orchestral players and conductors who prized the very best in orchestral standards. And the Berliner Philharmoniker set those standards with its Beethoven and Brahms sets in the early 60s. Recorded sound standards? Not so high!

Sound

It wasn’t that engineer Günter Hermanns was a cloth-eared dolt. Hardly. More to the point, he had a giant ego looming over his shoulders—Karajan, who believed himself to be the arbiter of all things musical, whether in front or behind the orchestra. He was a knob twiddler extraordinaire. Yet, there’s a reason John Culshaw bossed super-tough Solti (Decca/Ring) or Kenneth Wilkinson (Decca/everybody), or, from my first hand knowledge, Ralph Couzens hammering Maxim Shostakovich (Chandos Records—‘don’t touch the fucking microphones!’). The engineers/producers are objective and conductors are not.

So, for much of Karajan’s DG output the recordings are a soupy, congealed mess. Interestingly, not his early London ‘Bluebacks’ with the Vienna Phil or very early EMIs with the Philharmonia, where his power was limited by equally powerful lobbies such as Walter Legge, founder of the Philharmonia. On the DG recordings, even the massive (and minuscule) dynamics of a great orchestra are always ameliorated. Bass? Forget about it!

As sales and fame grew, Karajan’s power grew, and he took more control (helped in no small part with the huge backing of his best pal, Mr. Sony—Norio Ohga). And with it, almost ruined his recorded legacy. Yet, so good are the performances, many audiophiles overlook the crappy sound.

Sadly, even some of the DG vinyl reissues, costing $30 or more, did not deliver on better sound. Sure, like these Brahms pressings, we get silent, pristine surfaces, but no real improvement on the sound. The vaunted DG Karajan Daphnis is one of the releases I reviewed for Audiophilia. Here’s my gist:

The sound is unflattering throughout with compression at the loudest dynamics and a general lack of sparkle. Otto Gerdes (producer) and Günter Hermanns (engineer), the legendary team that recorded lots of 60s DGs, missed the mark, here. Maybe it was Karajan’s influence? He had an odd sense of ‘natural’ recorded sound considering he produced a uniformly beautiful one live with his orchestra.

I love quality vinyl reissues. Many of the DGs, though, are handcuffed from the start because of the original sound. This one doesn’t escape the murk. What a shame, as you will not find better performances anywhere.

Luckily, and very happily, this is not the case with this very special Brahms set.

Here, you’ll hear what all the fuss was about with this magnificent orchestra and Karajan’s very mainstream, but beautifully detailed performances. Each solo is ultra Brahmsian—correct volume and tone. Brahms’ very specific dynamic marking of ‘sempre forte’ (meaning ‘throughout’; ‘always’) is exact with Karajan. Too many conductors and players ignore and blast away. The Berlin players’ tones are not too intense, especially the very important oboe (Lothar Koch) and horn (Gerd Seifert). Gentle, but proud and confident, if that makes sense to you? And incredibly musical.

All octaves get special treatment from the remastering. Before, you got tessitura goo. Here, the treble is extended, and because the midrange is more transparent, everything sounds so much better and real. But the special mention has to go to the bass. Wow! Size does matter. You’ll hear the magnificent Berlin bass section as intended—lots of it and powerfully extended so there is a foundation that is lost on so many of Karajan’s releases.

But, let’s get real for a moment. Don’t go spending your $100 expecting The Royal Ballet Gala or an Argenta Blueback. Ain’t happening. The old maestro really put the mockers on the original sound, so any significant improvement is a blessing. And we get the improvements I mentioned, but any bog standard ‘Wilky’ Decca or a classic EMI will still knock the DG’s socks off. It’s just the way it is. But, the sound is much improved. I wish Karajan could hear what I’m hearing on a great LP rig with superb cartridge and a brilliant phono stage. I think even he would be impressed. Highly recommended.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

The Four Symphonies

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Int. Release 04 Aug. 2017

4 LPs

0289 479 7429 1
Numbered Limited Edition