on July 14, 2000
I'm thoroughly convinced that the best interpretations of Brahms's symphonies belong to a much earlier generation of conductors--Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Otto Klemperer, Eugen Jochum, and a host of lesser names veiled in the mists of time. The next wave of conductors, influenced heavily by Toscanini (who was actually a fine Brahmsian according to many critics), has all too often come up short in its interpretations of Brahms. I'm speaking mainly of Karajan and Solti. Unlike Karajan's often grossly smoothed out yet messy attempts, Solti's Brahms sounds exceedingly well planned and executed. He obviously made a thorough study of these works and drilled his orchestra to do exactly what he wanted. The Chicago Symphony plays with all of the precision one would expect from a group of that calibre. So what is missing? Well, it's hard to put my finger on it, but I would say that the main weakness of this set is Solti's inexpressive phrasing. He does not tighten or slacken the tempo in certain phrases as intuitively as Jochum or Furtwaengler, resulting in a Brahms that is choppy and often cold. It's not that Solti's approach is always uptight. In the slow movements he actually seems a little too relaxed. I personally couldn't feel the pulse as strongly as I would like, a weakness that has been the Achilles' heel of many recent cycles, such as Sawallisch's and Abbado's. Solti is at his best in movements which display his ability to sort out the details of heavy orchestration, such as the final movement of the Second and the 3rd movement of the Fourth. In fact, clarity is never a problem for Solti. And these are very impressive readings when heard for the first time. But, unlike his Beethoven cycle, Solti's Brahms did not wear well on my ears over time. For all their impeccable execution, these performances left me feeling empty. One only has to compare Solti's and Barenboim's Fourth (both with the Chicago Symphony) to realize what is lacking here: for all of Barenboim's eccentricities, all his apparent shortcomings in getting everything "just right", we at least have a performance with some spiritual force. All in all, Barenboim's cycle--in spite of its poor Erato sound, excessive tempo changes, and sloppy moments--is considerably more enjoyable than Solti's. But to hear Brahms performed with precision and feeling, one ought to explore Jochum's cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded in the 1950s. Even the mono sound does not get in the way of Jochum's incredibly fulfilling interpretations.
on February 19, 2004
Johannes Brahms is, I believe, one of the greatest composers that ever lived, and is certainly high on my list of favorites. His symphonies are full of various feelings - happy, sad, or angry - that other composers simply avoid. I've come to the point where happy and merry music just won't do.
After listening to the collection, I've been amazed by firsts and lasts: the First and Fourth Symphonies; and each of their First and Fourth Movements. These pieces of music evoke some of the strongest feelings, which is why I consider these my favorites.
Overall, the rest of the Symphonies are pretty good as well, with two bonus tracks: the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures. Anyone who admires Brahms MUST OWN this collection. It is a high-quality collection that has a very clear sound which is worth every dollar it costs. You will not regret it.
on February 24, 2003
While I'm not very fond of Solti doing Mahler (escept for #8, wow) he really pulls every detail out of the masterful Brahms symphonies. The Chicago Symphony is wonderful and the sound for a 30 year year old recording is phenomenal. I'm not going to draw out this review as you can clearly see by the rest of the reviews that this is a marvelous set and to sell it for only 30 bucks seems criminal. Buy it. Now. I'm serious.
on November 23, 2003
I'm going to voice the one heretical opinion among all the other reviews here. While I think these performances are generally great and the price is good for a 4-CD set, you might also take a look at some if the other recordings out there. Frankly I don't think the acoustics are as great as the reviewers below said. The upper strings sound piped-in in a lot of places. In that majestic, lyrical part of the fourth movement of the C minor symphony (the one that reminded "every jackass", as Brahms said, of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"), the strings just don't sound nearly as rich and balanced as they should -- there's too much violin and not enough cello and bass. Also (and I think this is the case with most of the great symphony orchestras), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is simply too big and too loud. Feel free to call it nutty personal preference if you like, but I would actually go for some of the lower-key "budget" recordings instead.
I'm not going to pick too many bones with Solti here, but basically I didn't find his interpretation of Brahms' symphonies to be all that original. He could have chosen a faster tempo for a couple of the movements. The dazzling, teary-eyed 2nd movement of the D major symphony (my personal favorite) sounds kind of lazy and limp. That said, though, Solti tackles the Tragic Overture and the 4th Symphony with absolutely unrivalled force -- breathtaking.
I would check out a variety of performances by several different conductors (Solti included) instead of buying this full-scale boxed set. Christoph von Dohnányi did a very fine version of the 2nd Symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra -- it's so smooth you could almost melt (it's also coupled with the Haydn-Variationen, not available on this recording). The Naxos recordings under Alexander Rahbari are good, too. They might lack the (overrated) commercial prestige of the Decca label and the personal imprint of Sir Georg Solti, but they are newer recordings and sound great. For even more variety, take a look at Naxos' interesting set of Brahms' symphonies arranged for two pianos. Available individually and selling for only around eight bucks each, you can't go too wrong.
on February 18, 2003
Sir George Solti is one of the most recorded conductors. He made the famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra a household name in classical music. He is a unique artist, ambitious, driven, perfectionist, sensible, stylish and full of fire. George Solti is clearly comfortable conducting music of the 19th century Romantic Era. Time and again he has proven his might in such music as Wagner operas and Beethoven symphonies, chamber music, overtures and piano concerti. Johannes Brahms was a prolific and outstanding composer in the late nineteenth century, considered by many to be the worthy successor to Beethoven himself. Brahms combined the inspirational, emotionally sensitive and dramatic music of the new Romantic movement with the balanced perfection and structure of the Classical movement. While the leading composers Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner dedicated themselves to "music of the future", Brahms glorified the music of the past.
Sir George Solti becomes Johannes Brahms himself when he conducts the four symphonies which marked his career. The first symphony is orchestrated with fresh interpretation, elegant, spirited and full of human warmth and emotion. The last movement of Brahm's first symphony, which had mixed reviews at its premiere, was compared to the Ode to Joy theme. Brahms did not deny this, saying, "Any idiot can see that." Brahms evidently lifted the theme and made a variation. He did not hide the fact that Beethoven was his real inspiration and he praised him in a symphony that, to this day, is still regarded as Beethoven's 10th .
The second and third symphonies are exact, precise, well orchestrated in the hands of the Chicago Symphony and George Solti pulls through with magnetism, subtle elegance and attention to detail, full of the romantic flavor that Brahms is most loved for. The classical structure, perfect balance and poise, color in every individual instrument, is each a component of the masterful symphonies of Brahms. The fourth symphony, although still in lines with the same style, is perhaps more romantic than its preceding symphonies. The Fourth opens with a haunting, romantic theme, a lyric string section which seems to despair with the drama and tragic context of the full orchestra. The fourth is undoubtedly Brahms' finest symphony, as it is his last and ultimately his lasting mark in the musical world.
The Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures come with this box set. The Tragic Overture, hence its name, is full of the pathos of an unexplainable tragedy, human in emotion and dark in scope. Only Brahms could spin out such intensely despairing melodies, making it a trademark of the romantic movement. The Academic Festival is lighter, more spirited and joyous. It was composed as Brahms was being honored with a degree in music at a German university. In the 19th century, institutions of education in Germany were the finest in the world, equal to Oxford in England and the East Coast Ivy League schools in America. The Academic Festival Overture begins with variations on student's songs which Brahms had heard on campus, with "Janissary" flavor, Turkish instruments such as timpani and cymbals, long held as festive from the standards of Mozart days. The last theme is a declaration of joy and praise to wisdom. For those who like to pinpoint certain things, the Academic Festival Overture is used in movie and commercials when they show a college campus. It was the "Acme University" theme in the old cartoon series, "Tiny Toons." Sir George Solti is the best interpretor of Brahms symphonies and overtures. He has substance, he has style and surpasses even those of Karajan conducting.
on August 22, 2002
It's hard to believe this recording is only ADD... Decca always has the best recording technologies. In these performances, you hear each and every important line or motive in Brahms's intricate polyphonic layout. The result is an everlasting pleasure of the work of a genius, a feeling that you get the entire contrapuntal complexity of the music. The recording engineers have given a bold emphasis to the brass winds (a feature prominent with other Decca-Solti recordings as well), and this contributes a lot to the richness of sound and texture, compared with other famous recordings (Karajan, for example) where one finds the traditional emphasis on the strings. I find this recording more balanced and better achieving a good perception of the polyphonic complexity of the music. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is of course one of the best orchestras in the world, and their playing is, as far as I can grasp, flawless. As to Solti's conducting, well, here one might say justifiably that other great conductors (Karajan and Barenboim, for example) are just as good, or, even more interesting and inventive. Solti's conducting is, one could say, minimalist - he refrains from complex rubatos, avoids changes of tempos beetween phrases, and doesn't employ any sophisticated phrasing. However, he is still a superb conductor, with his respectful contribution to the excellent instrumental balance of the performance, and he usually brings out successfully the emotionality of the music, and even better, the intricate structure.
on August 8, 2002
Sir Georg Solti was one of the great champions of music of the Romantic era. This set is an outstanding example of why that reputation survives his death. London records and the Chicago Symphony under Solti set a standard for clear and precise sound. It is lavish. Having wallowed in numerous other sets of the Brahms symphonies, I was amazed at how details leaped out in these performances. Brahms' genius is heard to greater advantage here than in any other version of the four symphonies. Solti developed the Chicago into probably the finest orchestra of the last 30 years, at least for the 19th century repertoire. Abetted by this stellar ensemble, his interpretations are intelligent, passionate and brilliantly executed. There is more substance than in von Karajan's versions, better sound than in Abbado's original set for DGG - which featured four different European orchestras and has been one of the finest sets, and more insight than even Szell and the Cleveland displayed. As a bonus, Solti plays the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures with fire and delight. This is one of the immortal recordings of Brahms' epic symphonies and very reasonably priced.
on January 17, 2002
There may be argument among Brahms afficienados whether these Solti/Chicago sessions were the pinnacle of the performing of the Brahms Symphonies, but as a package, this 4 disk set is a superb investment for any Brahms lover.
First, the recording quality is absolutely superb. I have few, if any, other orchestral cds that provide such a soundstage and dynamics. All sections are well balanced. Background noise is totally absent; the orchestra comes out of a black velvet silence. I don't know whether this was studio or auditorium recorded, but the acoustics are first rate. Its a great example of the "golden days" of recording.
Second, all the performances are excellent and one would need to do a close comparison to evaluate whether Solti should take a backseat to anyone as an interpreter of Brahms' orchestral music. His use of the full dynamic range of the orchestra is masterful. He lays a strong foundation for Brahms wonderfully melodic work in the lower registers of the strings and woodwinds.
This set has become one of my favorites, and the 3rd Symphony disk is now the orchestral "show off" disk for my equipment.
on February 20, 2001
As with most of my reviews, I must comment on the sound. London/Decca has nearly perfected how to make great sounding recordings. These discs, recorded in the late 70s are a great demonstration of the "Decca Sound" which I am such an adamant fan of. For a recording to be great, it has to start off with adequate sound to detail the music. Here the recorded sound is excellent--has good presence, full detail from highs to lows, and spacious.
Two factors go into my rating of 5 stars. First, the price. Seeing that this is an affordable box set, it instantly becomes favorable. Full price box sets of 4 discs are around $60. The favorable price of the set coupled with the performances make this box set attractive enough to rate it 5 stars. Solti turns in some great performance of Brahms' symphonies. Solti favors a full orchestra with thicker textures rather the lighter and thinner orchestras of say a Mackerras recording. I enjoy the full orchestra with a beefier string section. The tempos of the symphonies are well within range of most other recordings. There aren't really any big surprises in these recordings, which can often make them not stand out in a crowded bin of Brahms recordings. However, that doesn't mean they are bad performances. Now, if one was to buy individual recordings of each symphony, there are performances which truly stand out, but this set has to be seen as a collective and overall this set is great. Whether you're a fan of the symphonies of Brahms, or the conducting style of George Solti, you'll find that these are fine recordings with enough flair to keep you interested. One note for comparison, all 4 Brahms symphonies are available on 2 discs recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. They are cheaper and a little bit more spirted than this box set if you're all about price.
on September 15, 2000
I used to like Brahms a lot. Lately I've been listening to this set, particularly the 1st Symphony, and my opinion has changed. Now I am in absolute awe of him. Why has this collection changed my mind? In one word: bass. The low register instruments, especially the basses and cellos, stand strongly in these recordings, and the result is I'm discovering a *lot* of depth to the composition that had escaped me before. Brahms turns out to be a much better composer than other recordings had let me discover before. In certain passages, I focus totally on the low strings, just to see what they're up to, and I'm richly rewarded. Then I go back to some of my previous Brahms' recordings, and I can barely hear the same wonderful passages. Very disappointing!
Aside from the wonderful mix, everything else is quite fine. The tempos are crisp, the orchestra sounds magnificent, just right on.
Finally, Solti should NOT be commended for including the exposition repeats. Instead, other conductors should be cursed and shunned for ever omitting them.