What we have here is a three-disc set devoted to the concerted works of Brahms featuring recordings drawn entirely from EMI's early stereo catalog. Though EMI had earlier recordings -- Schnabel's piano concertos with Szell and Menuhin's violin concerto with Furtwängler -- and later recordings -- Kovacevich's piano concertos with Sawallisch and Perlman's violin concerto with Giulini -- they choose instead Claudio Arrau's piano concerto with Giulini from 1960 and 1962, David Oistrakh's violin concerto with Klemperer from 1960, and Oistrakh and Pierre Fournier on the double concerto with Galliera from 1956. Dedicated Brahms listeners will already have their favorite recordings of these works, favorites that may or may not be included on these discs. But for less than dedicated Brahms listeners and for listeners who don't already know these works, the question is: do the performances on these discs fairly represent the works?
Some better so than others. The most successful performance here is probably the Oistrakh/Fournier double concerto. Oistrakh's virile tone and Fournier's sweet tone blend and contrast wonderfully together, especially in the ardent central Andante, and the accompaniment they receive from the dependable Galliera and the polished Philharmonia Orchestra strikes just the right balance between support and assertion. Less successful is Oistrakh's violin concerto. Whether because Oistrakh is uneasy with Klemperer -- they don't seem to agree on an interpretive point of view, Oistrakh stressing lyricism and Klemperer stressing drama -- or because Klemperer is uneasy with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française -- he can't seem to persuade everyone to agree on the location of the downbeat -- Oistrakh's performance seems less poised and focused than usual. Least successful is Arrau's piano concerto. Though once one of the great virtuoso pianists, Arrau was apparently no longer up to the works' more strenuous pages by the time these performances were recorded. Despite his still golden tone, there are long stretches when Arrau sounds like he's just banging away with scant regard for where his hands come down -- try the second concerto's Allegro appassionato and just listen to Arrau mercilessly thrash the keyboard. Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra provide Arrau with heroic accompaniments, but they seem to be trying to compensate for his shortcomings by drowning him out.
Oddly enough, the sound here is inconsistent. Though produced in every case by Walter Legge, the sound here is close and clangorous (the piano concertos), distant but honest (the double concerto), and dim and gray (the violin concerto).