Streaming the Classics/4—Brahms: The 4 Symphonies—Box Sets

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Do you ever type a streaming query in Roon for a classical work and are overwhelmed by the choices? Rather than clicking on any old recording or the first one you see, Audiophilia will make things a little easier for you and do the heavy listening.

These choices are for streaming only. Is the best in streaming also the best vinyl recording and performance? That’s for another article.

A few criteria:

  1. Recording must be on Qobuz and/or Tidal HiFi.

  2. It does not have to be HiRes or MQA.

  3. No more than ten recommendations in no particular order, then our top three for streaming in order of preference.

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  1. Karajan 1964

  2. Jochum

  3. Barenboim

  4. Solti

  5. Klemperer

  6. Abbado

  7. Rattle

  8. Bohm

  9. Furtwängler

  10. Jansons

Much like the 3 Beethoven boxsets published previously in this series, Karajan had equal success with his 3 Brahms boxsets, with the same orchestras—Philharmonia on EMI (mono); not available as a box set on either Qobuz or Tidal, and the Berliner Philharmoniker twice on DG (1964 and 1977).

The 1977 gets slated fairly regularly as a bumptious version of his magnificent 1964 version, included in this list. We reviewed the superb vinyl reissue pressing recently. It’s been released on CD in umpteen versions and now can be enjoyed streamed.

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Before we move on, I should give you my slight bias for Austrian/German orchestras in Brahms’ symphonies. The horns, oboe and strings, especially, and so vitally important in any successful Brahms performance and recording. Contrastingly, there are a couple of Chicago picks and the Philharmonia gets a look in (two, if the Karajan mono set was available—it’s brilliant). But these two great orchestras can produce a Central European sound compared to other English and American orchestras.

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Another bias is more specific. The horns. The Viennese horn is a completely different animal compared to the big American and German horns used in most orchestras. And it is this sound that serves all the great horn solos best. For sure, great artists like Stefan Dohr in Berlin (Rattle) or Dale Clevenger in Chicago (Solti and Barenboim) are magnificent in the famous solos, but the Vieneese horn sound, with its mournful and legato tone does it for me.

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A couple of conductors’ recordings I did not know and a few reminded me of what I had been missing.

Two German conductors, Karl Bohm and Eugen Jochum (is there anything these guys touch that isn’t pure gold?) were added to the list immediately. Jochum, especially, is considered by many the premier conductor of Brahms and Bruckner (coming to this series) and Bohm is always in the mix for Austria/German repertoire.

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Furtwängler‘s individual recordings top many lists for each symphony, but you’re often saddled with bootleg sound. Not for audiophiles. If sound is not the most important factor, then stream the most musical conductor with abandon.

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Both Solti and Barenboim bring different approaches to Brahms, but both are mainstream and elicit superb playing from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Big boned, muscular, yes, but great characterization, too, and lots of subtle details, especially with Barenboim. His Chicago set is better recorded and played than his recent one with the Staatskapelle Berlin on DG.

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We just published a review of the Abbado/Berlin set reissued and remastered on ESOTERIC. No HiRes ESOTERIC to stream, but the very fine original DG is. It’s a belter. And definitely in the final mix. Abbado insists on and receives flawless dynamics as demanded by Brahms.

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The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has a splendid Brahms tradition (built under Jochum) and has two very fine sets, one included here with Mariss Jansons and the other with Sir Colin Davis. The Davis is not well known and flies under the radar, but would be a good number 11.

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Much like other repertoire we’ve covered, Qobuz and Tidal stream many fine performances of mainstream works, the Brahms Symphonies included. Any of the ten listed will brings hours of musical pleasure. They are well recorded, beautifully played and continue a specific Brahms tradition.

But this series demands only three, so here are the favourites in specific order:

  1. Bohm

  2. Karajan 64

  3. Jochum

Just as we did with the Beethoven set, here’s our very narrowed list for an individual Brahms streaming set.

  1. Karajan/Philharmonia/EMI (mono)

  2. Abbado/Berlin/DG

  3. Rattle/Berlin/EMI

  4. Kleiber/Vienna/DG

Happy streaming. Next in the Series: Elgar Symphony No. 1. If you don’t know it, you should have a listen to James Norris’ picks. He’s an Elgar expert and connoisseur. Followed by Bruckner 9 Symphonies Box sets.