Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies and Concertos

CD 1 [52:52]
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 [52:52]
CD 2 [71:02]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83 [50:33]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56a [20:39]
CD 3 [74:40]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 [41:16]
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op.102 [33:24]
CD 4 [75:26]
Serenade No.1 in D, Op.11 [50:41]
Serenade No.2 in A, Op.16 [24:51]
CD 5 [68:00]
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68 [54:12]
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 [10:24]
CD 6 [77:47]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73 [38:44]
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90 [39:13]
CD 7 [71:56]
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 [40:34]
Hungarian Dances Nos.1 in G minor (orch Brahms) [3:21]; No.2 in D minor (orch. Johan Andreas Hallén (1846-1925)) [3:36]; No.3 in F (orch. Brahms) [2:53]; No.4 in F sharp minor (orch. Paul Juon (1872-1940)) [4:37]; No.5 in G minor (orch. Albert Parlow (?-1888)) [2:47]; No.6 in D flat (orch. Albert Parlow) [4:06]; No.7 in F (orch. A. Hallén (1846-1925)) [2:10]; No.8 in A minor (orch. R. Schollum) [3:34]; No.9 in E minor (orch. R. Schollum) [2:22]; No.10 in F (orch. Brahms) [1:56];
Claudio Arrau (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), János Starker (cello)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 1969-1980, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. ADD
DECCA 4782365 [7 CDs: 491:43]

Haitink's analogue Brahms returns like an old friend but not a blandly companionable friend. Haitink may not lay on the drama with a blazing trowel as Bruno Walter can but he certainly makes connection with the underlying emotional intelligence and is at times open to being swept along by the lava flow of the moment.

His conception of the First Piano Concerto and that of Chilean pianist Arrau allows for plenty of surging grandiloquence. In this the Royal Concertgebouw are breathtakingly apt partners. The collaborators here may not have the rawness of Serkin (review) but this is idyllically Apollonian music-making.

Analogue hiss is present in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto as it is throughout this set and is not compensated for in this case by any special voltage in the music-making. Everything seems smoothly resolved and thought through but I sensed little travail or spontaneity. That said, Arrau is joyously light of countenance in the finale. The violins are too fiercely rendered for my liking in this concerto. My preference for Serkin (Sony) and even Gilels (DG) is not displaced.

The Serenades represent Brahms limbering up for the symphonies. They have been successfully recorded over the years by the likes of Dirk Joeres (Regis and previously IMP) and with the greatest distinction by Boult (EMI). These Haitink readings do not play down the drama but there is more here of the smiling Brahms of the Haydn Variations and the Academic Festival. This is all lovingly done but the invention is more ceremonial and romantically florid perhaps in the manner later adopted by the Dane Ludolf Nielsen and the Swiss Franz Huber in their suites and symphonies respectively. Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw make a grand noise but the mood is closer to the Dvorák symphonies than to Brahms own later symphonies except perhaps the Second. They still make for truly classy entertainment music without searing the emotions - hunting-party cassations on a large scale.

In the symphonies Haitink leans toward the music's contented centre and it is this philosophic pull which is felt most strongly even in the most troublous episodes in the First Symphony. One does not feel the searing heat or the torrid conflict of Bruno Walter's classic cycles - both mono and stereo (Sony). However the late summer sun has rarely been heard to such grand and curvaceously undulating effect in the finale of the First. In this Haitink provides a link with the Serenades which glow so well under his direction. The volcanic upheaval in the last few minutes before the end of the work is handled with a gloriously fervent up-welling.

The Tragic Overture is the counterpart to his friend Dvorák's Othello. However Brahms did tragedy with so much more bite than Dvorák. Haitink confounded my expectations by producing a passionate Tragic Overture while at the same time reminding me how indebted Hamish MacCunn was to Brahms for his The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. The companion overture is the Academic Festival which in mood lies as much with the Serenades as the Tragic lies with the symphonies. It's most caringly shaped and beautifully recorded allowing for the immanent yet discreet hiss - the latter not something to put you off.

Haitink's Haydn Variations are centred and placid - a statement of calm and the philosophic mind even in the more animated sections. Delightful that each variation is separately tracked. all very satisfying and the Grazioso is the most lustrously fine I have ever heard. Rustling hall noise detracts nothing from this exceptionally fine Haydn Variations.

The Szeryng Violin Concerto also has its accompaniment of analogue hiss but this passionately coarse-toned soloist compensates in tempestuous drama. This is met more than half way by an elite orchestra and control room team. The concerto is a fine version which can stand alongside those by Repin (sadly undervalued) and Oistrakh.

The hiss in the Double Concerto is there but is lower key. Szeryng and Starker meld well and this is a passionate yet deliberate account of a work for which I have had a lifetime's affection. This was renewed in recent years by hearing the fervently flowing version on Chandos earlier this year and renewing my acquaintance with the golden age leonine up-close Rose and Stern version on Sony.

The Second Symphony is smoothly and life-enhancingly done. That late summer repose and petalled unfolding felt in the finale of the First is luminously apparent again here; sensationally so in the first and third movements. In the finale Haitink remarkably imbues the playing with an unusual fire which does not leave him chasing Walter's coat-tails - quite the reverse. In the Third Symphony Haitink again takes a similar approach. The joy of the finale is at 5:50 enhanced by the wondrously clear counter-pointing of higher and lower strings. I have not previously heard such fine separation and simultaneously experienced contrast.

The final disc includes his last symphony (No. 4) and the ten Hungarian Dances, three of them (1, 3, 10) orchestrated by Brahms. The first movement of this Fourth is placid yet not dull - more repose and some superbly placed trumpet solos against the rest of the orchestra. This spatial effect glowingly enhances proceedings. The joyous lightning-strike athleticism of the third movement works so well in Haitink's hands. That sprinting power and lordly confidence also shines out in a reading that vies with the finale. This is a work which has two surging finales one after the other. The first is the third movement which is marked joyous. The second (the true finale) is shown as energico e passionato. The markings are interchangeable as mood indications.

Haitink revels in the Hungarian Dances which are given with joyous abandon and breathless zigeuner exuberance - try Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 10. The others are leisurely romantic, chirpily innocent, falteringly seductive or stately and all benefit from the 1980 technology of this recording - the youngest here.

The notes are compact and are from the pen of Jeremy Hayes. The CD envelopes are sensibly designed with a stepped lip so the disc falls naturally into the pocket without hassle or any real challenge to dimming eyesight. The box snuggly holds all seven discs and booklet without a wasted millimetre. The same goes for its companion also under review the DG-originated Pletnev Tchaikovsky symphonies and tone poems. More of that later.

There you have it. All the Brahms orchestral music including the 'cinderella' works - the Serenades - in surprisingly good readings. There are some moments where Homer nods but the coincident visions of Haitink and Brahms radiate integrity and often excitement. I have perhaps underestimated Haitink alongside Walter.

Rob Barnett

Overall excellence and a total identity of integrity in the coincident visions of Haitink and Brahms.