Recorded 1961, 1962 & 1965

Hidden away in terms of front-cover titling is the Tragic Overture, a fiery but not rushed affair under William Steinberg (1899-1978), who sees the work whole without denuding drama or expression, the Pittsburgh Symphony dedicated if not always at this time (early-1960s) one of the elite American ensembles, such as Boston/Munch then Leinsdorf (followed in fact by Steinberg), Cleveland/Szell and Philadelphia/Ormandy, although the woodwinds are very personable.

Listening to the Symphonies in what might be termed ‘Karajan’s concert order’, the Fourth’s first movement sweeps along with strong emotions, and also poise, followed by an expansive slow movement, rather meditative, although a little more flow would be welcome, and a Scherzo that is a tad staid, completed by a passion-filled Finale, during which there’s a fine flute solo, and the closing pages are defiant. The longer-than-usual ultimate chord is effective.

The Symphonies that preceded the Fourth all have first-movement exposition repeats. Steinberg observes none of them. I mention this solely ‘for the record’ as their omission is made immaterial.

Symphony 2 is very well done, quite songful with different levels of concentration to avoid monotony, and Steinberg is also attractively flexible with pulse, the highpoint being a deeply felt slow movement, riposted by elegance in its successor, and rounded by an energetic and exhilarating Finale. Symphony 3 is also impressive, without autumnal baggage, yet not sidestepping complex expressive issues. Trusting the score, Steinberg is Brahms’s confidant.

The long-gestated First Symphony is initially weighty and burdened, unrelieved and trenchant through the Allegro (we’re a long way from transforming minor to major). The Andante (Adagio for Steinberg) is remarkably intense and heavy-hearted – with a richly articulated violin solo – and then an upbeat successor. The Finale is momentous in its striving and determination, Pittsburgh players inspired, with the triumphant coda hard-won if unfortunately spurting and rhetorical, not a totally ideal arrival.

The recordings, from the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, produced by C. Robert Fine, need some taming and are then more than serviceable, although timpani can be reticent, save for a few strokes in No.3’s Finale that Brahms didn’t write and some rolls that diminish the end of the First.

Excellent presentation – Steinberg background; critical reaction to his Brahms recordings on their first release; and the LPs’ liner notes – adorn DG 486 1815 (3 CDs).