Even those of us willing to confess our antipathy to Brahms - all that repressed emotion hiding behind such stolid, backward-looking classicism - have to take a step back when confronted by the Fourth Symphony. Of all Brahms's orchestral works it is one in which the balance between structural control and expressiveness is most perfectly maintained, in which the form does not constrict the content but, on the contrary, liberates it. The finale is arguably the most perfect symphonic movement he composed, deliberately taking an "old-fashioned" form, the chaconne, and building upon it a series of variations of increasing intensity, but each of the movements is proportioned with the same miraculous exactness.
Needless to say, there are myriad versions on disc, from almost every leading conductor of the 20th century from Artur Nikisch to Riccardo Chailly. Among the historical, ie, pre-LP, versions, Arturo Toscanini's with the NBC Symphony (RCA) from the late 40s still stands out for its structural rigour, clean-limbed lyricism, and the electricity his conducting generates. It's a model for later interpreters to follow, although, even with modern transfer techniques taking the edge off its originally sour sound, the quality is never ideal, and misgivings about its age deprive the affectionate yet rigorously structured account under Bruno Walter (Sony Classical) of some of its impact too.
All the heavyweights of the post-war era have something to say about Brahms 4 - Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia (EMI) is typically sure-footed with its structure, and grittily direct with its lyricism too; Herbert Von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon) is lithe, beautifully moulded, and, just in the final analysis, lacking in definition. Carlo Maria Giulini (Deutsche Grammophon) with the Vienna Philharmonic sounds spacious to some, laboured and over-reverent to others; Georg Solti (Decca) drives the music as fiercely as expected, squeezing out the intimacy in the process; Christoph von Dohnanyi (Decca) takes a direct, slightly clinical approach that leaves too little room for imagination, while Daniel Barenboim (Erato) shapes the music with great expressive freedom, using the flexibility of Wilhelm Fürtwängler as his model, and Gunter Wand (RCA), revered now in some quarters, is straightforward to the point of becoming prosaic.
The earlier of Bernard Haitink's two versions, recorded with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the 1970s is straightforward to the point of being noble; wonderfully spaced and rhythmically exact, it's available at mid price from Philips as part of a four-disc survey of all Brahms orchestral works which is consistently first rate.
The second account by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon, with the Berlin Philharmonic), mellow and eloquent, is worth hearing, and, as an antidote to all these sumptuous modern orchestral versions, so too is Charles Mackerras's (Telarc), with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reviving the scale of performance Brahms would have known. The recommendation, though, is one couched very much in the mainstream orchestral tradition - Carlos Kleiber's 1980 version with the Vienna Philharmonic generates more adrenalin than any other symphonic recording I know. After you've heard it, Brahms will never seem the same again.
Key recording: Kleiber, Deutsche Grammophon 400 037-2