The Odeon Trio go for gold. Unlike either the Beaux Arts (Philips) or the Fontenay (Teldec), they use three CDs to include everything by Brahms that could possibly be called a piano trio, not forgetting the Op. 114 and Op. 40 wind trios, whose wind parts can well be rendered by strings. They decide, too, that the original 1853 version of the B major Trio is for them, rather than the revised version of 1889 which is more generally favoured.
This is an exceptional disc. Exceptional both for the music Johannes Brahms’ three violin sonatas contain some of his most lovely writing and the performance French violinist Augustin Dumay and Portuguese pianist Maria Pires project a strong interpretive vision. The interpretation is more lyrical and thoughtful than typical, with somewhat slow tempi generally. This is married to exquisite – and I mean, exquisite – technique from both Pires and Dumay as well as an outstanding sound engineering job from DG. The excellence of this CD is comprehensive.
Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brahms’s great orchestral works, including the complete symphonies. The concertos feature three great soloists: pianist Claudio Arrau, violinist Henryk Szeryng, and cellist Janos Starker. "No one, I trust, will deny that Arrau has lived with, wrestled with, and in a truly terribly way ’known’ the D minor Concerto for more years than most of us can consciously recall. Where contemporary pianists have often tended to refine or domesticate the concerto, withdrawing it from the world of heroic endeavour, Arrau has always done the reverse. No pianist, apart possibly from Serkin in his several recordings, has communicated so formidably the work’s scope: its seriousness and its anxious, tragic mood. Often Arrau makes free with the text. But the vision is huge, the technique astonishing. Haitink is a worthy accompanist."
As complete sets of Brahms piano music go, it's hard to get more complete than this set by Martin Jones on Nimbus. Jones includes not only the canonical two Rhapsodies, three Sonatas, four Ballades, six sets of variations, ten Hungarian Dances, sixteen Waltzes and twenty-eight short piano pieces, but also the almost forgotten sarabandes, gigues, gavottes, studies, canons and transcriptions. Listeners looking for the most complete Brahms available need look no further. Listeners who do look no further, however, will have to settle for good but by no means great performances. Jones has a big tone coupled to an impressive technique and many of his performances are quite fine. But too often here he seems to be merely going through the motions, turning in accomplished but unexciting sometimes even dutiful performances. When extroverted virtuosity is called for in the Paganini Variations, Jones is almost but not altogether on top of the notes.
The music of Brahms held an important place in Sir John Barbirolli's repertoire and these recordings of the symphonies, made with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1966 and 1967, stand as one of the peaks of his discography. Barbirolli's relationship with this music is rooted in his time as an orchestral cellist, and these performances are notable for their rich, ripe sonorities and expansive warmth. This Japanese SACD reissue features the 2011's EMI Remaster.
After Bach, I think the compositional style of Johannes Brahms must be the most individually recognisable - at least in respect of his mature works; less so in the case of earlier compositions like the string sextets. However, these Piano Quartets are chock-full of typically Brahmsian melody and harmonic invention so that almost from the first bar, we readily are able to establish the composer's identity. Another reviewer has mentioned the density of Brahms's writing. Nowhere is this more evident than in these works which have absolutely no fat or padding on them; every note has a particular purpose within the structure of the whole. Nevertheless, in most of these quartets, Brahms does hint at the exposition of a subject which might become one of his grand melodic set-pieces but after only a passing nod at development, the idea fizzles out. But before we can sense any disappointment, we are caught up in his next scheme. This is so very characteristic of this great composer. The Beaux Arts Trio, ably augmented by Walter Trampler's viola, play to their customarily high standard with the recordings (from 1973) also being good.