Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded Brahms’s four symphonies between May 1978 and January 1979 for London Records. The recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures), and that set won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album and Best Classical Orchestral Recording from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
For the liner notes, Solti contributed the following:
“I would like to make a few comments about aspects of our recording of the Brahms symphonies, which formed part of a Brahms cycle that included the German Requiem, the Hadyn Variations, and the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures.
“The recordings, which were all made in the Medinah Temple, Chicago, took place over a period of approximately fifteen months, between October 1977, when we started with the Haydn Variations and January 1979, when we completed the cycle with the First and Second symphonies. My principal aim was to try to capture the feeling of real performances on record, and with this in mind, we always recorded whole movements without breaks. I am convinced that this is the only way, especially in the symphonies, to keep the musical architecture of the works alive. It is a tribute to the splendid quality of my Chicago orchestra and chorus that we seldom made more than two takes of anything, and there is in fact one movement of the Requiem which required just a single take.
“I would just like to highlight a few of my thoughts on each of the symphonies:
“The First Symphony is a work of dramatic tension, passion, and grandeur, which inspired von Bülow to refer to it as Beethoven’s Tenth—not, I feel, so much in relation to Beethoven as in this very sense of grandeur. In the first movement, the drama is so effectively created by Brahms by the relentless flow of rhythmic ostinati from the timpani beats at the outset to the throbbing on horns and timpani which underlies the final bars. The second movement has, in contrast, such a gentle, nostalgic, and lyrical quality and gives, together with the third and fourth movements, a variety of beautiful solos for the section leaders.
“In the Second and Third symphonies, while the coloring is much lighter, I have tried again to achieve structural clarity and to reproduce the chamber music quality which is so in evidence in these works, especially in the second and third movements of both. So as to enhance this, we used slightly fewer than full string strength and also undoubled woodwinds.
“The Fourth Symphony is structurally quite differently formed from the first three. The first movement is relatively shorter and the middle two movements much larger both in conception and content. With the last movement comes the complete break with both his own and symphonic tradition, by the creation of such a marvelous passacaglia.
“The question of first movement exposition repeats in the first three symphonies is a debated one. For each of these, Brahms composed prima and seconda volta bars which contain of course marvelous music. In live performances, I feel it should be left to the conductor’s discretion. Nearly always the repeats are omitted, as they make the works rather longer, but I felt that for recording it was important to preserve these few bars, and I have therefore kept in all the repeats. I was interested to discover that I was not alone in never having played the repeat in the First Symphony in all the performances I had ever conducted up until this recording. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had also never done so in the almost ninety years of its existence. So we were all hearing these bars for the first time!
“We had enormous joy in making these records and we felt, at the same time, a very great artistic responsibility. I hope that we have managed to convey some of both.”
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Tragic Overture, Op. 81