(Photo: YouTube)
When I was a kid if someone said "Brahms" I expected the next word to be "lullaby."

What I don't expect now is for one of his magnificent symphonies to act as a sleep aid.

That can happen. Recordings made since the middle of the 20th century are often a muddled wall of sound that envelops the listener like a warm blanket.

Why? In an effort to find significance, conductors added more instruments and created bloat.

According to conductor Riccardo Chailly, this happened over the years because: “Conductors listen to other conductors, mannerism becomes exaggerated habit, habit becomes caricature, caricature becomes habit, conductors listen to other conductors.”

These recent recordings of Brahms' symphonies by Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, titled "Brahms: The Symphonies," are crisp and clear. You can hear way down into the symphony for subtle details and individual instruments.

The clarity comes in large part from Chailly re-examining the scores and listening to the recorded interpretations of a generation of conductors that were alive during Brahms’ lifetime – principally Felix Weingartner and one of his Gewandhaus predecessors Bruno Walter.

Weingartner recorded all four of Brahms’ symphonies in the late 1930s. (These recordings are still commercially available.) In 1896 he had conducted Brahms’ second symphony in Vienna with Brahms in the audience. After the concert, the composer thanked him profusely for his interpretation.

Brahms didn’t suffer fools – ever. We must assume Weingartner got it right. And Chailly studied Weingartner's work.

The three-CD box set includes all four symphonies, fresh interpretations of the “Tragic Overture,” “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” “Hungarian Dances” and more.

Rarities include world premiere recordings of two piano intermezzi orchestrated by Paul Klengel (brother of the Gewandhaus long-standing principal cellist Julius Klengel); the 9 Liebeslieder waltzes; the original first performance version of the Andante of Symphony No. 1; and the even rarer revised opening of the Fourth Symphony. (You can hear more about that by clicking on the link below.)

Audio: The revised opening of Brahms' Symphony No. 4

I still love reading liner notes and the informative 20-page, hardbound booklet is a nice bonus.

They say that the mark of a serious classical music fan is having more than one recorded version of your favorite composer’s work. If you love Brahms, this is a modern recording worth adding to your collection.

It’s remarkable that you can own the lion’s share of a lifetime of Brahms’ work for about $30.

Watch these amazing videos for more on Chailly's insights into Brahms:

Conductor Riccardo Chailly on Brahms' Symphonies No. 1 and 2.

 
 

Conductor Riccardo Chailly on Brahms' Symphonies No. 3 and 4.