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have heard everything listed; my favorite by far -- beautiful orchestra and conductor without eccentricity. A lovely beginning focused on Brahms emotion and lyricism ... and an explosive finale. A tremendous performance one can play every day if they like and one of Bernard Haitink's greatest performances.

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You'll get a load of different recommendations (from prehistoric to ultra-modem) and a host of safe, crusty, old recommendations so I'll throw a similar curveball to a previous, recent poster and say try a few on YouTube until you arrive at one you really like. Get very familiar with it and find out what it is about that performance you like then look for one that is nothing like it. Repeat.

PS. Sonnet, I love Steinberg's Brahms too. Im not with you on the Bernstein though. ;)
 

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Crusty guy here (I just like good music)

I think Klemperer is beautifully played but also adds some power that many others lack. Another excellent choice is Karajan 1986 which comes with lush sound and playing.

The best interpretation I have heard is Furtwängler/VPO 1945. The finale beats even the Walter/NYPO for excitement.

Also, for Brahms 3 I highly recommend the Abbado/BPO from 1989.
 

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The Walter/NYPO is really exciting, he generates tremendous energy in the closing of the finale - but, iirc, the sound is badly congested, obscuring some crucial detail - the descending scale passages in the trombones were obscured - at least on the LP version....
Reiner generates similar energy in his live 3/60 recording with NYPO - not quite as fast as Walter, but still plenty of juice, and the sound is clearer, the brass has a great time of it - clear as a bell, and plenty of it....this one is difficult to obtain at present - was released on Arlecchino, and included on a NYPO archival set...NA at this time??
This performance set the tone for Bernstein's NYPO effort of 5/62 - similar approach w/o the accelerando in coda of mvt IV....LB/NYPO is an excellent version.
 

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The Walter/NYPO is really exciting, he generates tremendous energy in the closing of the finale - but, iirc, the sound is badly congested, obscuring some crucial detail - the descending scale passages in the trombones were obscured - at least on the LP version...
I have the cd version, Heck. Its still congested on there. Great energy but the sound works against it. Shame.
 

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Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius, Mahler, Messiaen
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This is maybe my favorite thing Kleiber did that we have documentation of (I don't care for his recordings nearly as much as many seem to):

 
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I think his version with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for RCA's even better.


Regards,

Vincula
Agreed. When I did my Brahms symphony survey a few years ago, Monteux/SF came out right next to Furtwängler/VPO overall. I found the 1962 LSO Monteux to be very nice sounding but a bit bland interpretatively next to the 1945 SF. Must have been a good year for Brahms 2nds.

These came out on my "essential" recordings list:

Furtwängler/VPO (1945) (DG, Music & Arts)
Monteux/SFSO (1945) (RCA)
Weingartner/LPO (EMI)
Klemperer/Philharmonia (EMI)
Karajan/BPO (1986) (DG)
Bernstein/VPO (DG)
Walter/CSO (Sony)

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