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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa