I have been a long time fan of Claudio Abbado’s Brahms since my father bought me an early Abbado DG Brahms LP in 1972 (Serenade No. 2; Academic Festival Overture). Grade 8 in Canadian School years. I was never a fan of the Serenade, but Abbado’s Academic was stunning and sounded as such with Karajan’s remarkable band. This new Esoteric release is a remaster of the late 80s, early 90s DG Brahms set recorded at the beginning of Abbado’s reign with the Philharmoniker.
I never owned this particular set, but I very much admire anything Abbado conducted in those days with the LSO, Boston, Chicago, Vienna or Berlin. Such a consistent standard with five great orchestras over a large repertoire. His consistency can be found in this re release through all four symphonies and sundry orchestral works.
First, the performances. The superlative technical qualities of the orchestra developed under Karajan remain in the early days of Abbado’s term. Flawless balances and intonation, with soloists of the very front rank. Important to Brahms such as pizzicato tone and reverb, ‘sempre forte’ (forever strong)—almost always abused by excitable conductors; it does not mean fortissimo)—syncopated ostinato within inner lines (lots from the violas), and a myriad of other orchestral techniques are scrupulously observed by Abbado.
Interpretively, these performances are Berlin mainstream—nothing rushed, exquisite phrasing, bloom and emphasis around important cadences, and rhythmic accuracy (Symphony No. 2 and 3 are especially difficult and succumb to rhythmic sloppiness in the counterpoint under weaker orchestras and conductors). If you listen through all four symphonies in one sitting (why not, even considering Abbado’s generosity with adding the exposition repeats?), you’ll recognize his very musical and thoughtful direction as he builds through Brahms’ magnificent sonata forms. If you are familiar with Furtwangler’s and Karajan’s sets, you’ll realize quickly that these recordings are 50% conductor inspired and 50% Berlin Phil directed. As recently departed Berlin MD Sir Simon Rattle says of his band, and I paraphrase, ‘…conducting them is like directing and trying to control magnificent wild horses!’.
Just so with this set. You can purchase with impunity. Brahmsian completists, you’ll need it, and plain old lovers of Brahms, you’ll want it.
In addition to the symphonies, you get crackerjack performances of three amazing orchestral works, Tragic Overture, Academic Festival Overture and Haydn Variations.
Second, the sound. And why many of you are here.
The standard DG set can be had for under fifty bucks including Prime, free, 2-day shipping from Amazon. So, does this three disc, beautifully produced Japanese set earn its $100 premium over the standard set? For me, where I’ll walk a mile for improved, great sound, it’s an easy ‘yes’.
The Esoteric Company, a subsidiary of the TEAC Corporation, manufacture very highly regarded, expensive digital and amplification components. I’m not sure why they got into the remastering business, but the care and detail shows in the many wonderful releases (Audiophilia reviews here, here and here). Even on the poor old CD format (but with SA-CD DSD encoding) many releases sell out quickly, meaning a virtual trip to Ebay, where you’ll find most single disc releases can be purchased for around $50. Rare box sets like Solti’s famous Decca Der Ring des Nibelungen can command $7000 or more!
The ESOTERIC format is hybrid with both SA-CD and standard CD layers available, equipment dependent. My review set was ripped to my Antipodes CORE Music Server as FLAC files and decoded by T+A Elektroakustik’s DAC 8 DSD High End D/A Converter ($4550, review forthcoming).
ESOTERIC describes its process this way:
The criterion of re-mastering is to faithfully capture the quality of the original master. ESOTERIC’s flag ship D/A converters, model D-01VU, Rubidium master clock generator model Grandioso G1 and ESOTERIC MEXCEL interconnect cables and power cords, were all used for this re-mastering session. This combination of highly advanced technology greatly contributed to capturing the high quality sound of the original master.
Whether or not you can wring out the last ounce of quality sound by playing these discs on a specific SA-CD player, I’m not sure. Punters and reviewers get much of their digital music via downloads or streaming. A hardened box to only play CDs is getting harder to find, let alone an SA-CD player. But, the ripped FLAC files sounded better—richer, more detail with considerably better bass definition—than DG’s standard set on Tidal and Qobuz. Brahms’ music needs bloom on strings and emphasis on bass pizzicato, both of which are glorious on this set. In fact, the remastering sounds very similar to the wonderful job DG did on its recent vinyl release of Karajan’s first Brahms cycle from the early 60s. Also, the midrange here is extremely clear enabling all that delicious wind counterpoint to be heard.
My favourite ESOTERIC set so far is the Bohm/Mozart Symphonies (review linked above); a masterful series with the same orchestra. Add this to the top of the list. You won’t hear Brahms played or sounding better in the digital domain. Very highly recommended.
Johannes Brahms : The Four Symphonies
Conducted by Claudio Abbado
Re-mastering: Producer: Motoaki Ohmachi (ESOTERIC COMPANY)
Mastering Engineer: Kazuie Sugimoto (JVC Mastering Center Daikanyama Studio)