Brahms is harder to conduct than any other major composer. This difficulty arises because there’s more to his works than the surface of the score indicates. A conductor has to have this music in his heart in addition to his head. A strict literal reading of his music leads to pedestrian performances. A good example of this problem is the fourth movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony. It’s a passacaglia; a simple bass figure is constantly repeated without alteration. There are 30 variations and a coda based on a theme from Bach’s 150th Cantata. Its level of ingenuity surpasses almost anything else in the symphonic literature.

Unfortunately it virtually never receives the performance that it deserves. It is one of the greatest final movements in the symphonic literature, but conductors seem to fall asleep during it. It’s marked Allegro energico e passionato, but somehow both the energy and passion get left out.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) is typically thought of as a conductor who favored slow tempos. But when the great German maestro conducted Brahms he was a bullet train. Listen to the last few minutes of the 4th symphony’s finale. Furtwängler is the only conductor I can find who seems to have the movements markings fully in mind. This recording was made in Berlin in 1943. I shudder to think who were in the audience.

Compare Furtwängler’s reading with two other conductors, both generally considered to be among the greatest of the 20th century – Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) and Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). Toscanini is usually thought to favor fast tempos, but in his 1938 performance with the BBC Symphony he takes almost two minutes more than Furtwängler to traverse the final movement. But it’s not just time that distinguishes Furtwängler from the other two, and indeed virtually everyone else, it’s the energy and passion that he has and which the rest neglect. Peter Gutmann in his notes on this work sums up Furtwängler’s superiority as follows: “But standing apart from all the others is Wilhelm Furtwängler…Furtwängler fully internalizes the work and then regenerates it with vast spontaneity, yet driven by searching intelligence and thorough control, producing a commanding personal statement that manages to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the splendor of Brahms. The finale, in particular, is terrifying in its extremes and persistent drive, an experience on record never equaled before or since, and an enduring testament to an utterly unique work of genius by both composer and artist.”

Kleiber’s interpretation is fine and only pales when compared to Furtwängler’s. Toscanini’s conducting sounds almost torpid when matched to his German coeval. The 4 CD set, pictured above, contains all four Brahms symphonies, the 2nd Piano Concerto, and an extra 4th movement of the 1st Symphony and two version of the Haydn variations. It’s a must for any Brahms lover. Furtwängler’s Brahms is revelatory.

Furtwängler Brahms 4th finale

C Kleiber Brahms 4th finale

Toscanini Brahms 4th finale

A bonus – here’s the finale of Brahms’ 2nd symphony another movement that rarely gets the energy it demands. Furtwängler is as compelling here as in the 4th Symphony. This recording was made in Vienna in January 1945. Immediately following it, the conductor fled from the Nazis to Switzerland. The obvious question is what took him so long?

Furtwängler Brahms 2nd finale