The highest function of this two-disc Virgin set called The Very Best of Brahms would be to turn listeners on to great music they may not already know. Though some might quibble at the choice of repertoire -- where is the Wiegenlied, Op. 49/4, aka Brahms' Lullaby? -- few would say the works here don't represent what might fairly be described as the very best of Brahms. Those unfamiliar with the works of the great German Romantic composer who listen through these 20 selections will undoubtedly hear some immensely attractive music: the mighty First Symphony, the joyous Violin Concerto, the ominous First Ballade, the consoling Ein Deutsche Requiem, the melancholy Clarinet Quintet, and the exciting Piano Quintet along with 14 others selections.
Some of the featured performances are fabulous, such as Stephen Hough's strong yet subtle performances of the piano concertos, Nicholas Angelich's masterful yet soulful performances of the solo piano works, and Paul Meyer and the Capuçon Quartet's sensual yet autumnal Clarinet Quintet. But most are merely mediocre. Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony's ungainly and unbalanced symphonies, Jaime Laredo's scrappy and flabby Violin Sonata No. 3, and Michael Collins' hooty and fruity Clarinet Sonata all suffer in comparison to other available recordings. Thus, this two-disc set's highest function may be best fulfilled by pointing listeners in the direction of other recordings. Virgin's digital sound varies as greatly as the performances. Sometimes it's crisp and clean, as in Meyer's Clarinet Quintet; sometimes close and warm, as in Angelich's piano music; and sometimes hard and edgy, as in Eschenbach's symphonies.