A Little Heavy Music

I’m gonna steal from myself a bit in introducing this next clip: it’s the first movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in c minor in a stunningly remastered performance by von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmonic:

This 1963 recording of this monumental work has recently been remastered by DG and is now available as part of the DG Originals series. I have to say that they did it right; quite frankly, the sonic quality of this recording is spectacular. I have also heard (and will later review in this space) an other DG Original CD (Gundula Janowitz singing Mozart) and the quality of that disc is also fabulous. If these two CDs are indicative of the sonic quality of the rest of the series, I cannot and will not hesitate to recommend them. The best part is that they’re all mid-price.

It would be a shame if the performances weren’t worth the effort that DG has put into the remastering process; fortunately for us, we have Karajan leading the Berliner Philarmoniker through an astounding performance. From the powerfully ominous opening, with its pounding timpani and sheets of strings, through the sublime allegretto and through to the famous Beethoven-inspired theme of the finale, the orchestra plays as one instrument. In other words: buy this.

I suspect that Phil Spector got his ideas about a ‘wall of sound’ from listening to this symphony.

Brahms was Beethoven’s self-appointed musical heir; he fought against what he viewed as the romantic excesses of Wagner and Liszt. Certainly, in form, this symphony is very traditional, with four movements, all in the right places; from the point of structure, the only thing a traditionalist might find fault with are the violin solo in the Andante and the sheer length of the piece (this performance, which cuts the da capo exposition in the first movement, runs a solid 46 minutes). Brahms even tips his hat to the old masters by using a theme that is directly descended from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th.

However, in terms of tonality and harmonic structure, Brahms sounds more like Wagner, Liszt and Mahler than he does Beethoven. His sonic palette is clearly and unambiguously mid- to late-nineteenth century romantic; in fact, Strauss would later use some of the same aural vocabulary in tone poems such as Don Quixote.