Brahms: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra. HDTT (remastered).

The German-born conductor, pianist, and composer Bruno Walter made most of his late-career stereo recordings for Columbia Records and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It was not the best orchestra in the country because despite its membership consisting mainly of freelance musicians and members of the New York or Los Angeles Philharmonic (depending on where Columbia was recording them), it really only played together for recording purposes. Nevertheless, Walter made some of his best music with them, including the Brahms symphonies, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Mozart, and Wagner. This Brahms Fourth Symphony, which Walter recorded in 1959, concluded his Brahms cycle on a high note, and HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) do a fine job remastering it.

Interestingly, the composers I mentioned above were also among those that one of Walter's contemporaries, conductor Otto Klemperer, also excelled at doing. I've often wondered if it was just because both men were born in Germany around the same time and so had an affinity for the work of German and Austrian composers, or whether it was because both men in their younger days worked closely with composer Gustav Mahler. Maybe a little of both? Whatever the case, Walter and Klemperer produced excellent sets of Brahms recordings.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 in 1885, and it is one of the most wholly satisfying symphonies of his four. The opening movement begins gracefully and builds in dramatic tension using some of the composer's most memorable tunes. How a listener reacts to Walter's approach to the symphony will probably come quickly into the opening movement. A booklet note tells us that he had also recorded the Brahms cycle about a decade earlier (in monaural, of course) in performances that had "a lean, crisp sound." This time it's a little different. If you're looking for a big, dramatic reading, you're probably better off with conductors such as Klemperer, Bernstein, Kleiber, and the like. Walter, on the other hand, is relatively light and lyrical. He isn't slow by any means, just gentle and flowing and always with an unerring forward momentum. Nor does Walter's performance lack in weightiness or authority. It's simply a lovely, rich, sort of autumnal interpretation.

Bruno Walter
The second movement is placid, serene, wearing its heart on its sleeve, so to speak, accompanied by a plush orchestral arrangement. Walter takes this slow movement at a relaxed pace, making it among the most-peaceful renderings ever recorded. It's a perfect follow-up to the calm, unhurried tack he took in the first movement.

The third movement Scherzo is cheerful, festive, and exuberant. It provides the symphony a sudden note of excitement and happiness, and Walter uses it to advantage to help balance the more tranquil moments.

The Finale is powerful and relatively serious. Here, you'll find Walter concluding on a strong note, emphasizing the powerful architecture of the symphony. There is nothing showy or extroverted about the performance, yet the positive thrust of the music is always paramount.

Yes, you'll find more excitement in other recordings of this symphony. However, you'll not find more heart or soul than with Walter. This is as loving an interpretation as any you'll hear.

Producer John McClure made the recording for Columbia Records (CBS, Sony) in Los Angeles, February 1959, and HDTT remastered and transferred it to compact disc from a Columbia 4-track tape. The sound is some of the best Columbia provided in the Fifties and Sixties, and it comes up well in HDTT's transfer. It's very clean and clear, with a nice sense of dimensionality, left-to-right stereo spread and front-to-back depth. There is a hint of hard forwardness to the upper midrange, it's true, but it tends to reinforce the recording's transparency and should not be at all bothersome except perhaps to the most finicky of audiophiles. There is also a reasonably good dynamic range and a modest degree of hall resonance. This is not your old-time Columbia sound.

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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa