Piano is a featured instrument in two of my favorite Brahms chamber recordings: Harmonia Mundi HMC 901981 and BIS SACD 1353. The HM has the Horn Trio, Violin Sonata op. 78, and Fantasien op. 116, while the BIS has the two clarinet sonatas and the Trio in A minor for clarinet, piano, cello. Very fine performers -- Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Martin Froest -- and superb recorded sound. (Re the piano concertos, lots of good performances out there but not necessarily phenomenal recordings IMHO.)
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Good suggestions from Larsmusik.
IMHO, you can't go wrong with Brahms' solo piano music. The late piano pieces, Op. 116-119, the sonatas and rhapsodies are excellent. My favorite Brahms pianist is Stephen Bishop Kovacevich. Check out the mid-priced Phillips Duo release of late Brahms piano music, which is mostly a re-release of performances by Kovacevich. Performances are excellent and sonics are good. The original releases sound better to me, but not by much.
For that matter, the Phillips Duo sets of trios and piano quartets are quite a good value, but I'm no authority on the best of the sea of chamber recordings out there.
Brahms wrote tremendous large ensemble choral works. Listen to Shaw/Atlanta Symphony and Chorus for the Alto Rhapsody, Song of the Fates, Song of Lamentation, Song of Destiny and Deutsche Requiem, all on Telarc.
Don't stop there...
Some Brahms orchestral recordings on CD that I'm partial to are:
1) The four symphonies by Mackerras on Telarc with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Warm but less dense than regular full blown orchestral versions.
2)Piano Concerto #1 by Zimerman & Rattle on DG, and both 1&2 by Nelson Freire & Chailly on Decca (on 2 CD's).
3) Violin Concerto by Hilary Hahn & Sir Neville Marriner on Sony.
There are performances of all of these that I prefer but I think the recording might not be up to 'audiophile' quality. But if you can find them (old LP's) the Brahms VC by Perlman, the PC's by Gilels on DG, and the Symphonies by Walters are really worth having.
Interested in music for solo piano? Some of my favorite Brahms...........
I highly recommend that anyone interested in Brahms put sonics aside and go here to obtain Toscanini's incredible 1940 performance of the Symphony No. 1. This performance, IMO, towers over many others I have heard, and the work, IMO, is one of the supreme masterpieces of the symphonic literature.
I recently listened to this on my main system, and found the 1940 mono recording to be surprisingly listenable, and to not detract significantly from the performance, which I can only describe as magical.
Among early mono recordings, I also recommend Kathleen Ferrier's 1947 performance of the Alto Rhapsody, which I have on a Decca LP.
For good sonics + good performance, Uru975's mention of Hyperion prompts me to say that that is an excellent label generally, and you may want to peruse their catalog of Brahms recordings here. Also, you are unlikely to go wrong with any of the recordings of his chamber works that have been issued on the Harmonia Mundi France label, or, for that matter, with pretty much anything else on that label.
Kathleen Ferrier's performance of the Alto Rhapsody... I had forgotten I was looking for that one. Thanks Al.
I'm a Kathleen Ferrier fan, not a big Brahms fan, but I would recommend this music and performance:
Sonatas Op. 120, Scherzo
These are the viola version (Brahms also wrote a version for clarinet) and the performance by Ursula Oppens is passionate and intense.
For the First Piano Concerto, my top choice is the superb Curzon/Szell/London Symphony performance on London/Decca. Another very fine version is with Serkin/Szell/Cleveland Orch. on Sony(cd) or Columbia(vinyl lp).
In the Second Piano Concerto, the Serkin/Szell/Cleveland is, I feel, a classic.
Try also the wonderful Double Concerto with Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Wallenstein on RCA or the Schneiderhan, Starker and Fricsay on DG.
Excellent complete sets with The Four Symphonies include any of the following: Klemperer/Philharmonia Orch. on EMI, Solti/Chicago Symp. on London/Decca and the more recent Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI. Some outstanding individual renditions other than some of those from the above sets include: Symphony #1---Walter/Columbia Sym. on Sony Symp.#2---Kertesz/Vienna Phil. on London vinyl lp because the cd is currently out of print. Symp.#3---Jochum/London Symphony on EMI. Symp.#4---Reiner/Royal Philharmonic on Chesky. If you don't mind monophonic sound, the Jochum/Berlin Philharmonic set of the Four Brahms Symphonies on DG Originals is marvelous, and its sound is really quite good.
Brahms' Violin Concerto: Either of these two are gems: Heifetz/Reiner/Chicago Symphony on RCA or Oistrakh/Klemperer/French Nat'l Radio Symp. on EMI.
Try at least one of his chamber pieces. The Clarinet Quintet brims with an autumnal presence. The interpretation by Karl Leister with the Leipzig String Quartet on the MD&G label is glorious.
I'd also like to suggest you listen to a different but very satisfying work by Dvorak, a composer who was a good friend of Brahms: Symphony No. 8, with Istvan Kertesz conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on London/Decca or Rafael Kubelik conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on DG.
I would agree with those who suggest that the best performances on LP are not necessarily the ones with the best sonics. For instance, a great many orchestral musicians will tell you that one of the definitive performances of the four symphonies is the old Szell/Cleveland set, released on CBS Great Performances, which are not exactly known for their sonics. But those performances are superb.
I don't agree that you have to put sonics aside for good Brahms. Some of the great Brahms recordings were made in the "Golden Age". (If you need multi-channel recordings or freak out at the merest hint of tape hiss, this might not be the case.)
A case in point is Bruno Walter's last Brahms Symphony cycle. These have always sounded good.
I agree wholeheartedly with Daverz' praise for the Brahms Symphonies conducted by Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. I did not mention them in the entire set versions above because, as far as I know, they are not available in the same single package cd format as the Klemperer, Solti and Rattle compilations. Notwithstanding, I much prefer lp vinyl, and enjoy immensely the Walter and Klemperer sets/performances in that format. Incidentally, in any recommendations I ever make, my top consideration reflects interpretation(though I realize its personal or subjective nature). I make exceptions to that "rule" only if I consider the recorded sound to be irritating(usually, too bright or strident).
My enthusiastic recommendations:
Symphony no. 4 by Kent Nagano/Deutches Sym. Orchester Berlin on Harmonia Mundi: the most beautiful performance of this piece I have heard. Not a no-holds-barred performance like C. Kleiber's, but just gorgeous. Very good sound.
2nd Piano Concerto by Marc Hamelin/Litton/Dallas on Hyperion. Not as exciting as Stephen Hough (below), but beautiful,lyrical playing by Hamelin. SACD
1st and 2nd Piano Concertos by Stephen Hough/Andrew Davis/BBC Orch. on Virgin. A mid-priced CD with wonderful performances, very exiting. Good if not great sound.
Serenade no. 1 and Haydn Variations by Vernon Handley/Ulster Orch. on Chandos. My favorite performances of both works. Good, if distant back-of-the-hall Chandos sound.
And now some chamber stuff (which is main reason I love Brahms):
Piano Trios 1 and 2 by Storioni Trio on Pentatone. SACD
Beautiful playing/sound. Less intense than the Fontenay.
Piano Quintet by Prazak Qt./Ivan Klansky on Praga SACD. Would be hard to find better performances and impossible to find better sound ;-)
Clarinet Quintet by Pascal Moragues/Prazak Qt. SACD. Ditto above.
String Sextets 1 and 2:
a) by the Acadamy of St. Martin-Outstanding-in His -Field Ensemble on Chandos. Not exciting/intense as b) below, but beautiful,beautiful. Very good 1990's rbcd sound.
b) by Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion. More exiting/less beautiful playing than a). Sound is good, but not as good as a).
Note: all SACD's listed above are hybrid, so you don't need an SACD player for them. The rbcd layer on them sounds terrific.
I'm still looking for excellent performances of the Piano Quartets in real good sound. I'm close to pulling the trigger on Hamelin, et. al. on Hyperion. Anybody heard those?