The Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms
by Trevor G Cooper


I first heard the Brahms Fourth Symphony on an LP when on a ‘sabbatical fortnight’ of research in Cambridge in the 1970s. I remember the turntable (BSR), stylus (Goldring), label (DG), orchestra (Berlin Philharmonic) and conductor (Karajan), but most of all I remember the music. I knew nothing then about Phrygian modes and Passacaglias, but the music was pleasantly arresting and swept me along with it. I was keen to hear it live, and did so later in the Royal Festival Hall in a cheap student seat behind the orchestra; in fact, just behind the triangle player, whose instrument I heard loud and clear. 

Until then I had been unaware that there was quite a prominent triangle part at the end of the third movement, indicating that the recording I’d first heard had not made it stand out as at that live concert (admittedly somewhat over-loud from my position). I’ve subsequently been at performances of the Fourth where I’ve seen a figure at the back of the stage hitting the triangle but have hardly been able to hear it. Presumably the other percussionists, the brass section (if not using frequency-selective ear plugs) and the conductor would hear it, whereas members of the audience behind the front rows might not. This poses a dilemma both for the percussionist – should they strike it harder for live performances, to reach the audience in the back row, than in the recording studio, when closer to a microphone? – and for recording companies: should the engineers use omni-directional microphones that may pick up a distant metallic sound, or go for close miking and drown out other instruments playing at the same time? – not enviable decisions.

Material and Methods

Over the years I have collected various versions of the Fourth Symphony, which I compare here, listening especially for the triangle. Being played by different orchestras, led by different conductors, in different recording venues with different acoustics, by different recording companies with different equipment, perhaps makes any such comparison a fool’s errand, especially as each established and new orchestra/conductor combination vies to record or re-record it, making such a review never-ending and never comprehensive. The technology used in these recordings has improved over time from 35-mm film to PCM (CD, DVD-audio, Blu-ray audio) and DSD (SACD), leading to a better appreciation of what the orchestra/conductor combination has achieved. 

This review covers 42 recordings, heard as physical discs, mostly on CD (34) but also SACD (4), DVD-audio (2), Blu-ray disc (1)] and one FLAC download; 22 in ADD and 20 in DDD format, by 37 conductors leading 27 orchestras, made by 24 recording companies from 1948 to 2022. One orchestra appears twice (the Gewandhausorchester), others three (the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland, the Pittsburgh Symphony) or four times (the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Wiener Philharmoniker), with different conductors, of whom Bernstein, Celibidache and Giulini conducted two orchestras. Apart from the 1948 recording, all were stereophonic; all physical discs were played on a Pioneer UDP-LX500 CD/SACD/DVD-audio/Blu-ray audio player; and all were heard via Sennheiser HD820 closed-back audiophile headphones via a Lehmann Audio SE Mark II amplifier. To prevent ‘listening fatigue’, no more than two recordings were played consecutively in each listening session.

As a scientist, I have found that the stress of late-night research, publication deadlines and conference-related overseas travel can be relieved by listening to classical music, especially that of Brahms; but as a non-musician, I can do no more than jot down my feelings during multiple hearings over the years. This will inevitably reflect more on the enjoyable qualities of the digital remastering of analogue recordings and quirks of the orchestra/conductor combination than provide academic analysis of musical subtleties. Clearly there are differences in performances, including emphasis placed on the strings over the woodwind, or vice versa, or strands of music becoming heard in one recording but not another, all of which are the province of the conductor, whose experience over the years of many performances shapes their attitude toward the piece, but which may well not be to the listener’s or reviewer’s taste. 

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony  encompasses rich layers of sound, some splendid melodies and a true scherzo (featuring the triangle), which can be played, and has been recorded, both classically and romantically, providing different aspects for its appreciation. We are lucky now to be able to hear old recordings restored digitally from analogue tapes, including that of Furtwängler/BPO (1948); however, this recording can only be of historical interest, as it is still an unpleasant listening experience, compared with the others available. There are very high-quality old recordings of established orchestras, subsequently transferred to CD or SACD, from the RCA Victor Living Stereo label (Munch/Boston Symphony), or from 35-mm film (Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony), the latter by equipment that would later produce the Mercury Living Presence albums (Doráti/London Symphony Orchestra). 

Where direct comparisons could be made, for the Bernstein/New York Philharmonic account, the remastered FLAC version on the Columbia label is a marked improvement in clarity (especially for the triangle) over the original on the Sony label, though Bernstein’s later performance with the VPO on Deutsche Grammophon is far better, and for the Reiner/London Philharmonic session the DVD-A(24 bit, 96 kHz, HD Transfer label) version was found to be more marginally ‘smoother-sounding’ than the CD (16 bit, 44 kHz, Chesky label), but hardly critical to assessment of the music. I have found the full use of the high dynamic range of some SACDs (1 bit, 2.82 MHz) to be annoying, leading to loss of details when too quiet to be appreciated, requiring repeated alteration in volume. Smaller discursions in volume are characteristic on CD of Celibidache’s performances with both the Münchner Philharmonikerand Stuttgart Radio Symphony, and a similar limited dynamic range is encountered with Harnoncourt’s performance with the BPO, and Walter‘s with the Columbia Symphony. 


Some recordings amply show off the technical wizardry of the players, but these readings are too fast for a full appreciation of the rich, Brahmsian score, e.g. Stokowski with the New Philharmonia (36:58).One wonders if at age 92 he feared imminent death in the recording studio, but he need not have worried, as he lived for a further three years. Just faster (36:33) Adám Fischer’s account with the Danish ChamberOrchestra also sounds very rushed, with a thinner sound, because the band is smaller; it is a superficial reading, in which much detail is skated over, seeming to be more like an overview of the symphony; in scientific terms, there are “short paragraphs” rather than a “full exposition of the text.” Another swift recording is Gardiner’s “historically informed performance (HIP)” with his small Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (36:53); Manze’s slower (40:3) “post-HIP” account with the larger Helsingborg Symphony also seems rushed in places.

On the other hand, one recording by Giulini with the VPO is far too slow (45:80) – it almost stops in the fourth movement – but his recording with the Chicago SymphonyOrchestra (42:19) is good; slow but majestic. While taking similar times, Celibidache’s performances with the Münchner Philharmoniker (46:26) and Stuttgart Radio Symphony (41:67) do not drag, undulating in speed as he famously lingers on every nuance that reveals many details often obscured by faster playing; but in these performances even the Scherzo is taken at a slow pace with a rather subdued triangle entry. Szell, whose recordings of other works with the Cleveland orchestra are exceptional, disappoints in this one; while not so slow (42:53) and beautifully clear, it comes across as almost a robotic performance with a lack of momentum. 

Most recordings are satisfying solid performances by large symphonic or philharmonic orchestral forces, but other recordings have been made with smaller chamber orchestras, such as those with Fischer and Gardiner, or those of the size of the Meiningen court orchestra with which Brahms was familiar. Using notes written on the score by conductor Fritz Steinbach, about whose concerts Brahms did not complain, Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra produced a better performance and recording than the related Griffiths recording with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt. Harnoncourt’s performance with the larger BPO took cognisance of original scores and markings in them to produce a leaner sound than that of comparative large forces.

The Karajan version with the BPO, while clear and well recorded, is his typically glossy account from which any Brahmsian gruffness has been erased; Abbado’s account with the same orchestra moves away from Karajan’s approach and is truthful but mundane, as are Blomstedt’s and Chailly’s accounts, both with the Gewandhausorchester. Several recordings from somewhat overlooked orchestras stand out for clarity; the Utah Symphony Orchestra/Abravanel, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/van Zweden and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra /Mehta.  

Distinguishing features of some performances are solidity (Klemperer/Philharmonia) or excitement engendered by changes in pace. Furtwängler/BPO elicits ferocious playing at times, whereas Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony and Jurowski/London Philharmonic slow down just before the end of the symphony, emphasising the final drive forward. Excitement is generated by Kleiber and Romanticism by Bernstein, each with the VPO, and highly charged accounts are propelled by the Munch/Boston Symphony, Doráti/London Symphony and Skrowaczewski/DeutscheRadioPhilharmonie versions. As well as the exemplary sound from the Reference Recordings engineers, the Honeck/Pittsburgh recording is recognisable from it opening bar: the first note is slightly but noticeably longer (daa-da, da-da) than in all other recordings (da-da, da-da); I found this disconcerting at first, presumably because I’d become accustomed to hearing the latter. If Honeck is right, then are all other conductors are wrong? And if Brahms had wanted a longer initial note, would he not have written it? I would not be able to fathom Brahms’s score were I to see it, so must accept it as an alternative reading by an adventurous conductor; at any rate it is of minor importance compared with other differences in interpretation indicated above.

The triangle in the third movement is particularly evident in Ashkenazy(Cleveland), Bernstein (VPO), Doráti (LSO),Adám Fischer (DCO), Iván Fischer (Budapest Festival Orchestra), Furtwängler (BPO), Klemperer(Philharmonia), Mehta (IPO), Skrowaczewski (DRP), vanZweden (NPO) and Walter (Columbia), data that contradict my suggestion above that the triangle would be more prominent in live performances (only Bernstein’s is). 


It is now over fifty years since I first heard Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. It still has the same arresting and calming effect on me, but now somewhat more profoundly from my having learnt what Phrygian modes and passacaglias are. Current listeners have a huge choice of recordings embracing old versus new, swift versus slow, plush versus pared-back, Classical versus Romantic, plodding versus enthusiastic accounts, which range from 36 to 46 minutes in duration, the ten minutes making a lot of difference to the feelings engendered. It’s nigh impossible to rate all 42 performances, but from the above observations I consider that they can be categorised as being disappointing (Rank 4), acceptable (Rank 3), exciting (Rank 2) and exceptional (Rank 1), on the basis of the melodic (interweaving of themes and momentum), the technical (the thrum of the double basses, the clarity of pizzicatos and the separation of bowed and blown instruments), and of course that triangle! Within each category, the order is alphabetical by conductor, not a guide to relative quality; indeed, many recordings in Rank 1 prompted the thought “this must be No. 1” at the time of listening. 

ConductorOrchestraLabelCat. No.III IIIIV
1BernsteinWiener Philharmoniker1981DDDCDDG410084213.2612.476.1511.37
1HarnoncourtBerlin Philharmonic1997DDDCDTeldec0630-13136-
1HoneckPittsburgh Symphony2021DDDSACDReference Rec.FR-744SACD12.3811.065.549.26
1SkrowaczewskiDeutsche Radio Phil.2011DDDCDOehmsOC 41013.0711.366.0710.42
1DohnányiCleveland 1988DDDCDWarner Classics2564 64159-21312.166.1510.1
1WalterColumbia Symphony 1959ADDCDSony ClassicalSMK 64 47212.5811.456.2611.2
1WandNDR Sinfonieorchester1984ADDCDRCA Red Seal7432189101-211.5110.476.259.26
2AshkenazyCleveland 1992DDDCDDecca436 853-212.5812.026.259.59
2Celibidache SMünchener Phil.1985ADDCDEMI Classics72435568462 214.0814.03711.15
2DorátiLondon Symphony 1963ADDCDNewton Classics8802079 211.56126.069.1
2Fischer IBudapest Festival 2015DDDSACDChannel ClassicsCCSA 3531513.0711.086.2410.29
2GiuliniChicago Symphony1970ADDCDEMI Classics7243562882 2 412.5312.18710.48
2Kleiber CWiener Philharmoniker1961ADDCDDGDG 400 037-212.4511.196.049.12
2KlempererPhilharmonia1958ADDCDEMI Classics7243562742-212.2410.196.379.47
2LevineChicago Symphony1976ADDCDRCA Red Seal/BMG06 5 24 (79 9 1)11.3310.336.19.41
2MackerrasScottish Chamber1997DDDCDTelarcCD-8045012.0210.386.0510.06
2MehtaIsraeli Philharmonic1992DDDCDSony Classical8887516676213.1311.496.2310.19
2MunchBoston Symphony1958ADDCDRCA Victor/Sony8869768953-212.06116.2510.03
2ReinerRoyal Philharmonic1966ADDCDChesky RecordsCD 611.1112.46.289.44
2ReinerRoyal Philharmonic1966ADDDVD-AHD Tape Transfers HDTT394511.2212.536.359.43
2SteinbergPittsburgh Symphony1961ADDCDDGDG 486 181511.5711.546.0810.07
2van ZwedenNetherlands Phil.2002DDDCDBrilliant Classics9994612.3810.436.069.26
3Abbado  Berlin Philharmonic1992DDDCDDGDG 435 349-213.0612.16.2610.03
3AbravanelUtah Symphony1976ADDDVD-ASilverline Classics284209-211.4910.46.039.21
3BernsteinNew York Philharmonic1962ADDFLACColumbiaMS 647912.3511.475.510.43
3BernsteinNew York Philharmonic1962ADDCDSony Classical767461846-212.3511.475.510.43
3BlomstedtGewandhausorchester2021DDDCDPentatonePTC 5186 85213.0111.516.3610.36
3BöhmWiener Philharmoniker1975ADDCDDG471 443-213.1812.066.4210.23
3CelibidacheStuttgart Radio Sym.1974ADDCDDGE459635212.5612.596.2310.29
3ChaillyGewandhausorchester2013DDDBRDDecca478 769611.5710.425.549.24
3GardinerOrch. Rev. et Rom.2008DDDCDSol Deo GloriaSDG 70511.1810.45.349.41
3JanowskiPittsburgh Symphony2008DDDSACDPentatonePTC 5186 30912.2911.046.259.5
3JurowskiLondon Philharmonic2014DDDCDLondon Phil.LPO 00751311.35.49.33
3ManzeHelsingborg Symphony2012DDDSACDCPOcpo 777 720-212.1911.536.0710.2
3SoltiChicago Symphony1978ADDCDDecca430 799-212.4112.536.1310.18
3KarajanBerlin Philharmonic1978ADDCDDGDG 289453097212.4811.056.049.57
4FischerDanish Chamber 2022DDDCDNaxos8574465-6710.418.475.399.06
4FurtwänglerBerlin Philharmonic1948ADDCDPristinePASC45612.3012.096.239.46
4GiuliniWiener Philharmoniker1989DDDCDNewton Classics880206314.1813.017.111.51
4GriffithsBrandenburg. Staats. Fr.2015DDDCDKlanglogoKL151412.099.366.219.39
4StokowskiNew Philharmonia1974ADDCDRCA Victor/BMG09026-62606-210.4811.5468.56
4SzellCleveland1967ADDCDSony ClassicalSBK 4633013.2212.546.4110.36

MWI Masterworks index: Brahms Symphony No 4