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There's something missing.
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.