Brahms: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Fritz Reiner, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

The Hungarian-born conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) enjoyed a prominent career, especially working in Europe with Richard Strauss, and then in America, to which country he emigrated in 1922. For most of us, though, he probably did his most notable work with the Chicago Symphony and RCA in the early days of stereo from 1954-1963. However, during those last years, he didn't record exclusively with Chicago, as this disc demonstrates. He recorded the Brahms Fourth with the Royal Philharmonic at the very end of his life, making it as a part of a Reader's Digest series of LP's and tapes. In fact, he had apparently committed to yet another recording with them, but ill health prevented it, and he died shortly thereafter. In any case, what we have here is a remastering from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) of that early Sixties performance, and at its price and availability, it is welcome, indeed.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 in 1885, the symphony the last of four he wrote and possibly his most wholly satisfying. The opening movement begins gracefully and builds in dramatic tension using some of the composer's most memorable tunes. It is only here that Reiner displays a degree of idiosyncrasy, and I hope it doesn't put off too many listeners. The fact is, Reiner is quicker through the first movement than almost any conductor in my experience. Now, it was not unusual for Reiner to create a strong forward momentum in his recordings. His Beethoven Fifth with Chicago moves at practically a breakneck speed, yet it is one of the most thrilling experiences on record. Here, however, the accelerated gait seems to rush what should have been a more-peaceful tone. In any case, it prepares us appropriately for the Andante that follows.

The second-movement Andante moderato is placid and serene, wearing its heart on its sleeve, accompanied by a plush orchestral arrangement. The Royal Philharmonic sounds its finest in this movement, with Reiner never pushing it or the score. In fact, Reiner, who most always stuck to the letter of the composer's intentions, articulates the music in soft, glowing terms, his timing a bit slower than most other conductors in order to more fully explore the tranquil mood.

Fritz Reiner
The third movement Scherzo is cheerful, festive, and exuberant, providing the symphony a sudden note of excitement and happiness. Reiner conveys this exuberance with alacrity, and it's a high point of the interpretation.

The Finale is powerful and relatively serious, the composer noting that the conductor should play it with energy and passion ("energico e passionato"). This is exactly what Maestro Reiner does, although it is no headlong rush; it is a sensible and reasoned account, with the Royal Philharmonic responding in kind. Reiner's recording must be considered among the most worthy in the catalogue, and one should not count any minor misgivings against it. For most listeners, Reiner's way with the music will be a heaven-sent answer to other more-bland renderings of the work.

RCA producer Charles Gerhardt and Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the symphony in the early 1960's for the Reader's Digest series, with RCA rereleasing it in 1966. HDTT transferred the recording in 2016 from a 15ips 2-track tape studio duplication using Dolby NR.

Because this was a different orchestra and a different venue for Reiner from his usual Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the sound is a little different, too. It's not quite as wide in its stereo spread and not quite as transparent as the RCA Living Stereo presentations. Yet it's just as lifelke, perhaps even more so for being miked a tad more distantly. There's a wonderful sense of space and depth to the ensemble, with a mild ambient bloom to make everything appear quite natural. More to the point, HDTT's transfer of the recording to CD appears letter-perfect. Highs are a tad forward, yet they don't seem out of sync with the rest of the reproduction, which is realistically well balanced. Clarity, which may not be quite that of Chicago, is, nevertheless, quite good. Overall, it's another fine issue from a company that reminds us just how good early stereo recordings were.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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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 both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, 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