Listen and Do: Six (Really Short) Versions of Brahms

The best way to compare performances (or orchestras) is to listen to them side-by-side. Side-by-side can be playing entire performances to compare the interpretations, the ideas, the sound. But the exercise here is more specific. Below are six excerpts from six different performances of Brahms’ Tragic Overture. But just the first two notes from each recording. So what good is that? You can’t tell much (if anything) about the interpretation or the quality of the performances from two notes. What you do get, though, is a great comparison of sound and the different ways each of the orchestras and their conductors approach the opening. You can directly compare the different textures, the different attacks, the way the players hold notes or sustain them. They are each strikingly different from one another.

Here’s the exercise. Find three words to describe each excerpt, and try to define precisely what is different one-to-the-next. This kind of close listening will train your ear to distinguish between sounds and build a vocabulary for describing them. This first track runs all six versions one after another:


You can listen to one at a time here:

Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony
Tom Morris Notes: Chords are harsh and sharp. This is a French sound typical of the Munch/Boston style [YouTube video]

Kurt Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Dresden
Tom Morris notes: Chords are rounder, more blended, richer – European patina

Bernard Haitink with the Boston Symphony
Tom Morris notes: Much rounder and more soft grained sound. Shows how much BSO has changed style between 1955 (Munch recording) and 1992 (this one). Haitink tries to make BSO sound like Concertgebouw – rounder and more soft-grained

James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic
Weighty and stolid. Dark, rich sound

George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra
Tom Morris notes: Crisp, light, and impeccably balanced

Christophe von Dohnanyi with the Cleveland Orchestra
The orchestra has become weightier, deeper sound with richer bass

Here’s an image of the first page of the score (click to enlarge):

Adobe ReaderScreenSnapz002


  1. Athina R. says:

    First of all, thank you for this wonderful class! I am really excited about giving us the opportunity of understanding much better the music. You should definitely continue similar courses and I think it would be great if somehow participants could also have at some point a certificate of attendance.
    As far as the six excerpts are concerned the difference in character and style of the interpretation is obvious. Personally, I enjoyed more the 1st one,with the chords played harsh and sharp. I was wondering though is one of these versions/excerpts more “correct” according to Brahms style?Thank you!

  2. Rebecca says:

    It is really striking how much of a difference there is between the orchestras. I personally prefer the softer ones over the crisp versions (ie the Bernard Haitink with the Boston Orchestra over the George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra). I prefer the softer version because it isn’t so jarring. It’s very interesting to be able to compare them and see how different people can interpret two notes so differently. These interpretations could be part of the reason that people prefer certain orchestras over others.

    I am curious about how Brahms wanted it to be played. Are there notations in the music stating that it should be played louder, softer, with an accent on each of the two notes?

    • Tom Morris says:

      Regarding the score, a copy of the first page is attached. As you can see, there is not much in the score that definitively defines how to perform these first two chords, but there is a a lot of information that becomes subject to the interpretation of the conductor and the style of the orchestra:
      1.The notes themselves are quarter notes with quarter rests between, which suggests separation of the notes.

      2. There are accent marks on the notes indicating they should be played with emphasis.

      3. The dynamics are interesting – double forte for everyone except brass and timpani, and only forte for them, which does indicate a dominance for the weight of the string sound and the colors of the winds.

      What fascinates me about this example is that the score still does not really explain the differences between the examples as all could be inferred by the score. There is no question that the views of the various conductors are important, but to me it is the basic character of the orchestras themselves and their innate style that define the distinctions – from the sharp crisp French sound of the 1950’s Boston Symphony to the central European burnished glow of the Dresden Staatskapelle to the heavy dark sound of the Vienna Philharmonic to the lighter impeccably balanced sound of The Cleveland Orchestra.

  3. Mihai Gherman says:

    Again thank you for this wonderful class. Concerning the interpretation:
    1. The first three words coming in my mind are: heroic, fast, complex. The sounds are very clearly pronounced, the musical sequence having two distinguished parts, first strongly stated by the chords and than elegantly and logically , I could say, ended by the drum. It is so well defined that it also could be the end of a musical work. Looking in a different way, we may feel here the dialog: first note is the question, the second one is the answer, nicely concluded by the drum, I think it is the only interpretation out of the six with such a clear structure. It is a Beethovenian interpretation.
    2. The words are: round sound, decision, stability. Here it is clear that we have a sequence with only one part with more pronounced percussion. “equal” with the chords.
    3 . Romantic, calm, balanced. Here the drum is linked to the second note, is a continuation, without being an end. You expect to come something else. There is no dialog. It is clear the beginning of a story.
    4. Rich sound, nobility, stability. What is characteristic in my opinion is that we may hear how the two notes become four sounds, two for each. It made me think first to fifth of Beethoven but asking my daughter to listen, she told me that she feels an echo, and may be she is right. Although balanced, the chords “make the game”.
    5. Light, balanced, echo. Together with 6 are more “piano” than the others.Here we have definitely an echo, but is the drum who does it.
    6. Same with 5, less the echo of the drums.

    Relating Athina question, I could say that Brahms is unique because even if it may be interpreted in so many ways, always you may discover a new great one.

  4. this is such an “ear-opening” experience!!! THANK YOU!

  5. Fascinating how we differ.
    1. Violent, Cold, Jarring
    2.Natural, Stately, Worthy
    3.Guarded, Cautious, Character
    4.(As noted under piece) Weighty, Dark, Rich
    5. Dismissive, Hurried, Colorless
    6. Same as 5
    Personal preference 2, close second 4.

  6. You can actually ‘see’ the differences in atack and decay by looking at the sound profiles.

  7. #1 – Harsh, abrupt
    #2 – Forced
    #3 – Second note is not precise… they “glided” into it. Sounded sloppy.
    #4 – Strained
    #5 – Rushed
    #6 – Balanced
    Overall, my favorites are #6, and #5 with #1 definitely at the back of the pack.

  8. Shawn P. says:

    1. Abrupt, startle notice
    2. Approach, quiet, tap on the shoulder
    3. Background, underneath, unsure
    4. Present, listen, demand
    5. Sameness, fusing, quiet
    6. Apprehension, question,indeterminate

  9. After I listened to the six samples very wellI loved James Levine and the Vienna philharmonic more professional.

  10. Listening in a whole new way. Personal preference was James Levine, but only after listening many times. Wonder what it tells about a person as to which version they prefer?

  11. Thanks for this fantastic exercise!
    I first listened the the excerpts on my laptop and found the differences interesting. Then I hooked it up to my stereo and filled the room with these two notes, which blew my mind.

    The many differences between these performances (some obvious from the start, others running very deep in the lingering sounds of the various orchestra sections, which I only picked up after the third or fourth run) show what an amazingly versatile experience this can be.

    A big thank you to the S4MU team for this course. Great job.

  12. It’s really great that you posted the score. Thank you.

    In David Alan Miller’s section on Orchestra Personalities I commented: “… I believe the conductor and musicians must try to be true and faithful to the composer.”

    The two chords are marked staccatissimo. In light of my comment above and Brahms’ marking I think Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony hit the nail on the head closer than the other five. I may not care for the harshness as much as I care for the softness of my original choices but if that’s what Brahms wanted I that’s what Munch gave us.

    In fact I might now go so far as to say that the other examples are ‘wrong’ in that I don’t think they play the two chords staccatissimo, in my opinion.

  13. Kathleen James says:

    1. Light, clear, metallic
    2. Deep, full, dark
    3. Muted, soft, deep
    4. Brassy, shallow, tinkly
    5. Sweet, pale, far-away
    6. Rich, blended, full

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