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Top 10 Brahms CDs and MP3s for your Classical Music Collection

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was an extreme perfectionist; he threw into the fire any music he did not deem up to his high standards. As a result, the ratio of masterpieces to lesser works in his output is extremely high. At an early age, critics began calling Brahms the successor to Beethoven, and he cemented this legacy with his four symphonies and profusion of chamber music. Brahms avoided the dramatic Romanticism of Berlioz and Liszt, and instead took after the Viennese Classical masters Mozart and Beethoven, as well as his more recent predecessors Schubert and Schumann. Unlike his contemporary Richard Wagner, Brahms composed no operas, and as the nineteenth century drew to a close musicians were divided into the "Brahmsians," who emphasized controlled passion in traditional styles, and "Wagnerians," who favored dramatic expression and formal experimentation. Today Brahms is one of the "three great B's" of classical music (along with Bach and Beethoven), and his music is loved worldwide for its beauty and its emotional power. However, the music is often regarded as "brainy," and its complexities aren't always immediately unraveled by the first-time listener. But Brahms's music is so incredibly rich that his works always offer something new to the listener, even on the tenth or twentieth or hundredth hearing.

Brahms was born into a musical family in northern Germany. He earned his living as a pianist until the age of twenty, after which he was able to concentrate solely on composition. He incorporated himself into the leading musical circles, making friends with Robert and Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, and the violinist Joseph Joachim. In the 1860s Brahms settled in Vienna, from whence he made occasional concert tours throughout Germany and Austria. As he produced masterpiece after masterpiece, his fame spread throughout Europe and the United States, and in his later years he was viewed as the greatest living composer of orchestral and chamber music. Brahms's influence on later music was enormous. Many twentieth-century composers looked to him for inspiration in their own works. In particular Arnold Schoenberg, founder of Serialism, wrote an essay entitled "Brahms the Progressive" that showed how Brahms's ability to develop enormous compositions out of tiny musical gestures paved the way for the musical revolutions of the early 1900s.

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1 Piano Trio No. 1 -- Eroica Trio
A chamber masterpiece 25 years in the making. Review...

2 Violin Concerto -- Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner
The most Romantic of violin concertos. Review...

3 Clarinet Quintet -- David Shifrin, Emerson String Quartet
We only wish Brahms had discovered the clarinet earlier. Review...

4 Symphony No. 2 -- Bruno Walter
Brahms's most tuneful symphony. Review...

5 Piano Quartets -- Beaux Arts Trio
Chamber music that Brahms himself thought was his best. Review...

6 A German Requiem -- John Eliot Gardiner
Had enough of those Latin Masses? Review...

7 String Sextets -- Stern, Ma, etc.
Demonstrating the endless possibilities of six instruments. Review...

8 Piano Concertos -- Leon Fleisher, George Szell
Grand symphonic works with piano virtuosity too. Review...

9 Symphony No. 1 -- Otto Klemperer
Also known as "Beethoven's Tenth." Review...

10 Piano Works -- Radu Lupu
A sampling of Brahms's best. Review...

11 Violin Sonatas -- Henryk Szeryng, Artur Rubinstein
Lyricism and fire. Review...

12 String Quartets Nos. 1-2 -- Alban Berg Quartet
"Progressive" works in the tradition of Beethoven. Review...

13 Brahms: Four Serious Songs -- Hans Hotter
A dying man asks, 'What happens next?' Review...



Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Eroica Trio

This trio is a perfect example of Johannes Brahms's intense perfectionist streak -- he spent more than 35 years writing and revising it! When he finally finished, the result was one of the all-time masterpieces of chamber music. Brahms excels at taking a simple thread of melody and weaving it into an ever-larger tapestry of sound. A perfect example is the opening theme of the first movement, which starts simply enough in the piano, is joined by the cello and then the violin, and builds to an impassioned climax. The Eroica Trio, a young ensemble comprised of three extremely talented (and in our opinion extremely attractive) women, perfectly capture Brahms's passion, giving a performance that is the equal of classic recordings such as Isaac Stern's or Artur Rubinstein's.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor

Brahms composed his Violin Concerto in 1878 for his friend Joseph Joachim, who was the greatest violinist of his day. Having just completed his second symphony, Brahms conceived the concerto in grand symphonic proportions; the opening movement alone takes about twenty minutes to play. The finale evokes "Hungarian" or "Gypsy" themes, paying homage to Joachim's Concerto in the Hungarian Manner, which the violinist had composed in 1861 and dedicated to Brahms. This 1955 recording featuring Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner has lost none of its appeal with age.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115
David Shifrin, clarinet; Emerson String Quartet

Like Mozart, Brahms came to compose for the clarinet late in his career after being inspired by the playing of a close personal friend. In Brahms's case the muse was Richard Muehlfeld, and the results were a quintet, a trio, and two sonatas with piano. The quintet is the most inspired of these works and ranks among the composer's finest masterpieces. Brahms makes excellent use of the clarinet's dark sonority to create a very sad atmosphere. This excellent disc features worthy performances of the Brahms and Mozart quintets.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor

Brahms's second symphony, composed just months after the first, contains many of the composer's most catchy melodies. Astute listeners will hear references to Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony and to Brahms's own lullaby in the first movement. The finale begins with a lyrical introduction that showcases the composer's ability to create what seems like a never-ending phrase, and then bursts into a jubilant orchestral fanfare. Bruno Walter was one of the greatest of Brahms interpreters, and this pairing with the Third Symphony is highly recommendable.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies, Top 10 Beethoven
Piano Quartets: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; No. 2 in A major, Op. 26; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60
Beaux Arts Trio; Walter Trampler, viola

Brahms' Piano Quartets are among his most popular compositions, and the composer himself regarded them as noteworthy: Brahms selected the Quartet No. 1 for his Vienna debut in 1862, and the Viennese public were deeply impressed. The quartet's first movement is based upon a simple four-note theme that is spun out with ever-increasing elaboration. The second movement is cloaked in a romantic aura of mystery, while the finale is an exciting "Hungarian Rondo." The Third Quartet was composed at the same time as the first two but only published in 1875 after extensive revision. The composition is tragic on a grand scale, most notably in the lyrical slow movement. The Beaux Arts Trio (joined by Walter Trampler on viola) give invigorating performances of the three quartets, and this two-for-one set also includes Brahms's second Piano Trio..

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
A German Requiem, Op. 45
Charlotte Margiono, soprano; Rodney Gilfry, baritone; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brahms's German Requiem shows that the composer could compose on the grandest of scales; this work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra ranks among the most powerful sacred works ever written. Brahms turned away from the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass and instead wrote a German text of his own consisting of Old Testament passages of meditation and solace. This recording demonstrates John Eliot Gardiner's mastery of the Romatic repertoire; the musicians move effortlessly from intimacy to grandeur.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral Works
String Sextets: No. 1 in B-flat major, Op.18; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 36
Isaac Stern, Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Jaime Laredo, Michael Tree, viola; Yo-Yo Ma, Sharon Robinson, cello

The string sextet is a rare form in chamber music, and hearing these masterpieces makes one wonder why more composers don't try their hand at writing for six instruments. The addition of the extra viola and cello to the traditional string quartet allows the composer to create extremely rich harmonies without sacrificing the melody. Especially noteworthy are the second movement of the first sextet, which is a set of variations on an eight-bar harmonic theme, and the third movement of the second sextet, which begins slowly and comes to a rousing climax. This recording features an all-star cast of chamber musicians who play as if they were a long-established ensemble.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Piano Concertos: No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83
Leon Fleisher, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, conductor

Brahms's two piano concertos were written more than twenty-five years apart and demonstrate his development as a composer. The first concerto was conceived as a symphony, but the twenty-something Brahms could not bring himself to write a symphony and invoke the inevitable comparisons with Beethoven, so he converted it to a concerto. The second concerto was written after Brahms had two symphonies under his belt, and is much more relaxed. Goerge Szell was a masterful interpreter of Brahms's orchestral music, and he shines on this recording featuring the great Leon Fleisher.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor

Long before he composed his first symphony, Brahms was seen by many as the logical successor to Beethoven as the Greatest European (or at least German) Composer. This label intimidated Brahms, and it was not until he was more than forty years old that he completed his first symphony. The symphony was everything the public had expected, and it became dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth." Though the symphony's structure adheres to Classical standards, the profusion of melody and the wide-ranging harmony are typically Romantic. Otto Klemperer's 1956 recording remains special nearly fifty years later.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Piano Works, Op. 79, 117-119
Radu Lupu, piano

Brahms's primary contribution to the piano literature is the short works that he composed throughout his life. The pieces are typically Romantic, exploring a single mood or emotion. This collection features the two great Rhapsodies, Op. 79, as well as three collections of works Brahms wrote just before his death. The pieces are fiendishly difficult, requiring a wide range of technique; one of Brahms's trademarks was to ask the player to play groups of three notes in one hand and groups of four in the other. Radu Lupu seems to have no trouble with these pieces, making them flow effortlessly from his fingertips.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3, Opp. 78, 100, 108
Henryk Szeryng, violin; Artur Rubinstein, piano

These sonatas show that Brahms could be just as effective composing for two instruments as he could for three, four, five, or six. Written in a span of ten years, the sonatas quickly became staples of the violinist's repertoire. This recording pairs two of the century's best performers, and the chemistry is apparent from the tender opening of the first sonata to the electric finale of the third.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
String Quartets No. 1 in C minor, No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51
Alban Berg Quartet

Just as Brahms's first symphony was dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth," these two works continue the tradition of Beethoven's string quartets. The First Quartet is in the same key and style as Brahms's first symphony, and its four movements are linked thematically to give the piece a "breathless unity." In his famous article "Brahms the Progressive," Arnold Schoenberg showed how the Second Quartet's slow movement is generated from a motif consisting of just two notes, making it a miracle of musical compactness. The Alban Berg Quartet prove their reputation as admirable Brahms interpreters in this two-disc set that also contains Brahms's Third Quartet and a quartet by Antonin Dvorák.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Johannes Brahms: Four Serious Songs, Op. 121
Hans Hotter, bass; Gerald Moore, piano

These songs, based on texts from the Old Testament, were the last songs Johannes Brahms composed, and have been described as the composer's "musical last will and testament." Seeing death approaching, Brahms posed some of the central questions about the human spirit and man's relationship with death. The result is a profoundly moving work that still resonates powerfully today. Hans Hotter's 1951 recording of the four songs has for more than fifty years remained unsurpassed in intensity and emotional power.

Similar works: Top 10 Song