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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [41:54]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [38:50]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [29:46]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [39:46]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1 & 3), NBC Symphony Orchestra (2), BBC Symphony Orchestra (4)/Bruno Walter
rec. 1937 (1) & 1936 (3), Musikvereinsaal, Vienna; 1940 (2), Studio 8H, New York City; 1934 (4), Abbey Road Studio 1, London
Mono (studio & live)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC512 [2 CDs: 150:16]

Bruno Walter enthusiasts and lovers of Brahms’s symphonies are indeed fortunate: with the release of these recordings there are now four complete sets of this music under this conductor. The others are the two early-1950s sets with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, one of them ‘live’ (on Pristine Audio) and the other studio-based (on Sony), and Walter’s late stereo set with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (also Sony).

The recordings under review were recorded at different times and in different locations. However, Symphonies Nos. 1, 3 and 4 share the distinction of being EMI studio recordings made before the Second World War. Had EMI recorded No.2 during that period, Walter would have left a compete pre-war European set of the Symphonies. In view of that omission, Pristine has included a live New York performance from February 1940. The War had commenced in September 1939, but the United States did not join the hostilities until late 1941. So, with a little historical license, one could call this Walter’s pre-war set.

On these CDs, the symphonies are arranged differently from the order of composition. Numbers 1 and 3 (from Vienna) are paired on CD1 (also released on Opus Kura) while No. 2 (from New York) and No. 4 (from London) appear on CD2. The first CD provides the greater listening experience. Anyone not completely opposed to the romantic Brahms will find the conducting and playing of the First Symphony absolutely definitive and the sound remarkably good for the period. There has never been Brahms playing of greater eloquence on records, the Vienna Orchestra sounding almost as if it is singing, rather than playing.

When we listen to the slow introduction to the First Symphony, we do not hear a tune but a polyphony which Walter balances with fine clarity, the rising line in the violins and cellos counterpointing the descending line in the woodwind and violas. The Allegro which follows is delivered with a thrilling combination of warmth, flexibility and vitality, grounded in an insistent bass line. The tympani are, throughout this performance, clearly heard when they should be.

Walter, drawing unforced espressivo playing from the solo violinist and oboe player, rightly captures the essentially lyrical (rather than deeply spiritual) character of the Andante second movement. Similarly, the third movement, no boisterous Beethovenian scherzo but an Allegretto e grazioso, finds conductor and players fully responsive to its easy spirit yet alert to its complex textures and rhythms.

The Adagio introduction to the final movement, neither rushed nor drawn out, is delivered with some menace and creates a great sense of anticipation. The gloriously played C major horn call heard shortly before the start of the Allegro reminds us that the orchestra, then as now, used valve horns which are not of the usual orchestral type. They produce a softer, more rounded tone reminiscent of the valveless horns of the early to mid-nineteenth century – entirely appropriate, given that the passage was inspired by Swiss alphorns. The big tune that starts the Allegro boasts the ripest of string sounds and what follows is vitally and expressively played. There is a good deal of tempo flexibility but it sounds natural and inevitable with no loss of forward momentum. As a result, an expected slow-down at the start of the coda – typically heard in romantic interpretations – passes almost without notice and the performance ends in triumph. One of the greatest Brahms Firsts.

The Third Symphony is just as wonderfully played as the First, although some have not found the interpretation to be on quite the same level. This performance and Walter’s 1953 New York studio reading (Sony) were described by Richard Osborne, in his Gramophone magazine survey of Brahms Third recordings, as “30-minute lick-and-a-promise performances”. According to Osborne:

“…Walter’s broader, more rhythmically stable but not less vivid 1960 California-made recording (Sony)…is one of the great Brahms Thirds – what one imagined Walter’s Brahms always was but which the early recordings gainsay.”

Running for a more substantial 33 minutes, it is indeed one of the peaks of the Brahms recorded catalogue, its analogue stereo still sounding well. It remains first choice for many.

But the Vienna recording is not to be dismissed. From the arresting F-A flat-F opening motif (inspired by Brahms’ motto “frei aber froh” – “free but glad”) to the quiet endings of each movement, the conductor’s familiar combination of vitality and flexibility tends to diminish any sense of rush. However, the absence of the first movement repeat combined with a relatively fast tempo means that the movement is over in just 8:49 which does no favours to its structure, or that of the symphony as a whole. The same movement in the 1960 performance (also without the repeat) runs for a more satisfying 10:01. (While Walter acknowledged the argument about the effect of ignoring repeats on structure, he could not be swayed to – as he put it – go back and say what he had just said.) There is an oddity at the very end of the performance: the soft reprise of the opening F-A flat-F motif on the strings which we usually hear is almost completely swamped by other instruments. Heard once, this quirk of balance is not unpleasing but most Brahmsians would be relieved that it did not become the norm.

The sound quality of both these Vienna recordings is remarkably vivid, present, realistic and well-balanced, a tribute to the original EMI production team (probably led by recording manager Fred Gaisberg) as well as to Pristine’s restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn.

The first impression made by the live performance of the Second Symphony which starts the second CD is disappointing. Heard immediately after Vienna, the NBC Symphony Orchestra sounds a touch emotionally constricted in the first three movements, not the sort of band to deliver great romantic Brahms. Closer acquaintanceship, however, convinces that the constriction is largely in the engineering, not the playing. The culprit, apart from the old recording technology, is our familiar foe Studio 8H – notorious for its dry acoustic, which Mr Obert-Thorn has sought to tame by adding some digital reverberation. This must have improved matters, but no amount of technical wizardry can make that studio sound like the Musikvereinsaal with Gaisberg in charge.

In the first movement, the lower strings commence by establishing the right mood of tranquillity, soon taken up by the horns, then the woodwinds. The addition of other instruments is handled with considerable subtlety by the conductor, who leads us to a powerful forte. Subsequently, the melody we know as ‘Brahms’s Lullaby’ is introduced with tenderness and, in various transformations, serves as material for much of the rest of the movement.

In the second movement Adagio, Walter captures the brooding nature of the opening theme and of much of the developing variations which follow. He effectively points up the lighter character of the third movement where the lilting, gentler music is twice interrupted by more vigorous Presto passages.

In the finale, quiet or tranquil music alternates with loud and vigorous passages and, in the latter, the orchestra seizes the chance to display its precision and virtuosity. There is appropriate brilliance from the brass at the end, but not quite to the same extent as in Walter’s New York studio recording, where the conductor really lets the brass off the leash to thrilling effect.

The Fourth Symphony was the first recording in this series. The BBC Orchestra, as recorded in the studio, does not display the tonal resources of its Viennese rival but in every other respect (including precision, unanimity of attack, dynamic contrasts and internal balance) lives up to the high reputation it possessed in this decade.

In the first movement, Walter does not miss the feeling of conflict which exists in the deceptively serene opening theme. True to the score, the conductor maintains this feeling of tension throughout the movement and ends it in a forceful final statement of the primary theme. The composer did not specify a repeat of the exposition so, with respect to this movement, the issue of Walter’s attitude to repeats does not arise.

In the second movement, Andante moderato, Walter’s timing of 12:06 is little different from his 11:52 in New York (live) but somewhat slower than Toscanini’s 11:39 with the same BBC Orchestra in 1935. Walter’s relative expansiveness in London gave him more elbow room to find poetry in the music and to do justice to the lush orchestral sounds at the conclusion. The relative timings are reversed in the third movement (Allegro giocoso) with Toscanini taking 6:11 and Walter taking 5:54 in New York and just 5:36 in London. Given that this movement is effectively a Scherzo, Walter’s relatively speedier approach in London sounds appropriate and generates considerable excitement.

So to the fourth movement, the great Passacaglia. In Walter’s stereo set of the symphonies, this was perhaps the only part which brought major disappointment due to the conductor’s excessive tempo variations which sectionalised the work, undermining its drama. No such criticism can be applied to this BBC SO performance where the music is played as an unimpeded river of music from beginning to end and great intensity is generated. It is very likely Walter’s greatest recording of the piece. It sounds more dramatic than Toscanini’s live reading with the same orchestra as re-issued on CD by EMI, subject to the proviso that the decades-old transfer may have done the performance less than justice.

This is an indispensable set by one of the greatest Brahms interpreters in sound that ranges from serviceable to outstanding for the period.

Rob W McKenzie

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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