All products and recordings are chosen independently by our editorial team. This review contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.

A guide to Brahms's Symphony No. 3 and its best recordings

Terry Williams finds the best recordings of Brahms’s Third, one of the composer’s greatest triumphs yet one of his most paradoxical pieces

Brahms Symphony No. 3 guide and its best recordings
Published: June 28, 2022 at 4:49 pm

Johannes Brahms fought shy of writing a symphony. What was there left to say after Beethoven? When he eventually got around to it, the First Symphony of 1876 proved so successful that he wasted no time in producing a Second. A six year symphonic silence then followed before his Third Symphony was heard.

Advertisement

When did Brahms compose his Third Symphony?

Begun in 1882 during a vacation in Wiesbaden and finished the next summer, its premiere, given by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was one of Brahms’s greatest triumphs – all the more surprising as the Third Symphony is anything but a gallery pleaser.

By the time of that premiere, the once debonair composer and very model of a 19th-century Romantic poet had long since morphed into the luxuriantly bearded and portly Johannes Brahms. Although modest by nature, he perhaps felt a certain gravitas was required if he were to look the part of the celebrated composer who had not only written a wealth of songs, choral, chamber and solo piano music, but also two acclaimed symphonies, two epic piano concertos, a violin concerto of Beethovenian stature and a much admired Ein deutsches Requiem.

Romantics at war

The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, his benefactor and friend and founder of the Meiningen Court Orchestra which programmed many of his works, hailed him as ‘after Bach and Beethoven, the greatest, the most sublime of all composers’, a sentiment not shared by Brahms’s Russian contemporary Tchaikovsky, who infamously dubbed him ‘a talentless bastard’. The composer and music critic Hugo Wolf dismissed the symphonies as ‘disgustingly stale and prosy, fundamentally false and perverse’. Even today, Brahms remains one of the most divisive of composers.

It was Brahms’s Vienna, a city permanently at war with itself, which had originally drawn up the battle lines. The composer found himself in the cross-fire between two opposing claques, known as the War of the Romantics. His detractors condemned him as regressive, a spent force compared to his fashionable contemporaries Wagner and Liszt. However, in a 1933 lecture, no less a visionary than Schoenberg, main protagonist in the avant-garde Second Viennese School, would laud Brahms as not only a leading torch-bearer for the tradition of German music from Bach onwards but also as a vital link in the development of Western music. Whatever one’s viewpoint, history has deemed his four symphonies sufficient to earn him a place among the greatest of symphonic composers, the Third perhaps closest to an inner portrait of this complex, Janus-like figure.

A guide to Brahms's Symphony No. 3

After the heroism of the First Symphony and the pastoral flavours of the Second (and prefacing the inherent tragedy of the Fourth), the Third inhabits a more uncertain world. Unlike its predecessors, it offers no triumphant conclusion. Instead, it asks questions that go largely unanswered. All four movements end quietly, unprecedented in symphonic literature at that time.

The Third is the most Schumann-esque of the Brahms Symphonies, the one which mirrors Robert Schumann’s description of his own psychological make-up as both Florestan and Eusebius (‘impulsive and spontaneous’ and ‘inward and thoughtful’). Twenty-seven years after Schumann’s death, Brahms pays affectionate homage to his one-time mentor and friend with a quotation from the opening movement of the ‘Rhenish’, Schumann’s own Third Symphony of 1850. The Allegro con brio of Brahms’s symphony is rich in rhythmic and lyrical invention, embracing a wide range of feeling from euphoria to melancholy. Brahms asks for a repeat of the brief exposition – without it, the listener misses the heightened sense of excitement before the development leaps in. After a turbulent ride, the music comes to rest with a gentle reminder of the opening motto theme.

The clarinet-led Andante has its moments of serenity, although they do not conceal an undercurrent of regret. Near its end, however, the violins are given the chance to shine with an ecstatic crescendo of joy before the coda is allowed to dissolve into silence. Perhaps the tenderly nostalgic Poco allegretto that follows is a song of farewell to Schumann’s widow, Clara, the love that had once consumed the young Brahms for his friend and muse having never completely faded.

The finale begins confidently but storm clouds soon gather. After many mood and rhythmic twists, and what feels like the prospect of a triumphant finish, it eventually comes full circle, ending with a soft echo of the symphony’s opening bars. As dusk falls, it is Brahms the ‘inward and thoughtful’ one who has the final word, at least for the time being. The Fourth Symphony would tell a different story.

The best recordings of Brahms's Symphony No. 3

Otto Klemperer (conductor)

Philharmonia Orchestra

Warner Classics 404 3382

The Third is the most difficult of the Brahms Symphonies to bring off, which may explain the small number of wholly successful recordings. Even the great Arturo Toscanini never really ‘cracked’ it – though if you do want to hear him, make sure it’s the live Philharmonia recording and not his regimented NBC Symphony Orchestra account. Others fall just short of the top spot for omitting the important first movement repeat – as well as Bruno Walter (see right), these include John Barbirolli and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who are otherwise on simply glorious form, and William Steinberg’s superb account with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, though their performance is so compelling that one can almost forgive said omission.

If you want a full but not over-cushioned Brahmsian sound, you won’t do better than to go for Riccardo Chailly’s live 2013 set of the symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, beautifully recorded on their own turf. Their Third is painted in glowing colours appropriate for a work often characterised as autumnal.

Leading the field, though, is Otto Klemperer in his 1957 Kingsway Hall recording with the Philharmonia. Contrary to expectations – his tempos were usually on the sluggish side – Klemperer doesn’t hang about, and throughout all four movements the music flows quite swiftly. He divides his violins to dramatic effect and observes the exposition repeat. He could also be a cool customer, but there is nothing chilly about this honest but deeply felt realisation of the score, even though it veers more towards the Classical rather than the Romantic end of the musical spectrum.

This is essentially a symphony for winds and the peerless Philharmonia woodwind choir needs no encouragement to sing out. A review of the stereo LP even complained that the opening bars were too full of oboes, but in fact the overall orchestral balance is pretty good. The original sound quality was perhaps rather acerbic but in its present refurbished form has both clarity and warmth.

Brahms’s Third was a work close to Klemperer’s heart and he performed it in what turned out to be his final concert in 1971. This is available on disc in hazy, ‘off-air’ mono sound and probably of interest mainly to Klemperer completists. The earlier account is in a higher league altogether, with conductor and orchestra captured at their peak and leaving all comers in its shadow.

Bruno Walter (conductor)

Sony SMK 64471

In their Indian summers, Klemperer and Walter became polar opposites. This 1960 account of the Third with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra has all the musical qualities associated with late Walter, most of all a humanity and generosity of spirit which shines through in every bar – he smiles more often than his grim-faced contemporary. However, there is also plenty of backbone here. Though Walter doesn’t include the exposition repeat – which is a pity – this is still one to cherish, with very good stereo sound quality.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor)

Warner Classics 9029545104

Furtwängler was a creative artist who seemed not so much to interpret but to disassemble then recompose the scores in front of him. He described the Brahms Symphonies as ‘a wild, fantastic and even demonic universe’, which is what he conjures up in this Berlin Philharmonic recording. The opening bars are volcanic, erupting in a lava flow of angry sound, and near the start of the finale, an unsettled Berlin audience is momentarily stunned by a coronary-inducing blast from the trombones – this is not a performance for the faint-hearted. The sound quality on this 1949 recording is also surprisingly good.

Claudio Abbado (conductor)

DG 429 7652

By following the Meiningen Court tradition of smaller-scale Brahms performance, Paavo Berglund and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe offer many insights, as do Charles Mackerras and Robin Ticciati, both with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. However, for all their merits, none of them displaceClaudio Abbado’s fine-sounding 1989 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, which combines similar transparency with orchestral heft.

Advertisement

As well as being one of the best Romantic composers, Brahms was also one of the best German composers ever and one of the greatest composers of all time

Authors

Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.

Sponsored content