Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 (1876) [51:42]
Symphony No. 2 (1877) [47:27]
Symphony No. 3 (1883) [40:28]
Haydn Variations (1873) [20:48]
Symphony No. 4 (1885) [46:41]
Tragic Overture (1881) [15:29]
Vienna Philharmoinc Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, 1990-92, Vienna.
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802063 [4 CDs: 51:42 + 47:27 + 61:16 + 62:10]

Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) radiated aristocratic integrity and philosophical sensitivity. Although there were forays further afield his heartland was among the pantheon of nineteenth century symphonists. Rather like Celibidache and quite unlike Karajan his repertoire appeared – at least from the stance of a listener growing into music during the late 1960s and the entire 1970s – locked into a small range. Within those confines he was acclaimed for a connoisseur’s apollonian excellence. This was often underpinned by his working with the finest orchestras and by elite technical recording teams at EMI, DG and Decca. His recordings always appeared at premium price.

This Brahms cycle fits the bill to a tee and it is a surprise to hear that these recordings have not previously been issued as a complete set. These readings are as expansive as expected. When I say ‘expansive’ it is not code for merely slow although Giulini is slower than many. With few lapses he carries this off with evident conviction although there are moments - I noticed a few of them in the Fourth - where there is a suspicion of overdoing the long stride. He is never rushed. Not for him the fast-tempo animal excitement of a Golovanov or the glorious hysteria of a Bernstein. His concern is with the journey not the climactic waymarkers. It’s neither the departure point nor the terminus nor even the dramatic stations in between. He grasps the whole arc of the journey; is in touch with the works’ long-pulsed circadian rhythms. His preoccupation is architectonic and sensitive to the endogenous. We can hear this in the finale of the First Symphony at 19:46 where after brooding sweetly the music seems to pull up the roots with sturdy deliberation. There’s plenty of heft and impact. A pesante power comes with whiplash vituperation at 18:02 and those stabbing massed violins just before the final page sing out with glorious desperation (18:45) before the mordant impacts of the hammer-blow studded last pages. The Second Symphony more than ever communicates as a gentle blessing, idyllically shaped. In the finale at 2:40 the brass ring out in particularly well limned splendour. We hear both the zephyr's breath and then the lusty country dance in the Second. It’s rather reminiscent of Beethoven's Pastoral but most satisfyingly delineated and dynamically terraced. I love the Third and idolise the later Bruno Walter version. Giulini manages in his epic manner to cede the evolutionary pacing with an intense fire without the whiplash that walter brings to the work. His leaning towards the lyrical and the legato is complemented by drawing from the VPO a bullion golden tone. That last quality is well to the fore in this Brahms cycle. The orchestra manages some extremely soft playing – so soft it verges on Berlioz. There’s sweetness too but on the other hand the brass do have bite. It’s not soft focus by any means. The Tragic Overture has a related turbulent symphonic mien while Giulini relaxes into the Haydn Variations.

These recordings were made in concert in front of well behaved and healthy audiences.

The excellent notes are by Richard Osborne.

Giulini’s Brahms symphonies grip the entire epic ambit of these works. He is in touch with their long-pulsed circadian rhythms without losing their innate furnace heat. This set deserves to do well and I do urge Brahmsians to hear it.

Rob Barnett

Giulini grasps the whole arc of these works and is in touch with their long-pulsed circadian rhythms without losing the furnace heat.