If I were asked to pick my favorite symphony, well, I couldn’t. If I were backed into a corner and really pressured, I still couldn’t. But if it were a matter of life and death and I were making short lists, Symphony No. 1 by Brahms would be on all of them. Some have argued that the First isn’t really his first symphonic work; that would be Variations on a Theme of Haydn. Which, if granted, might not change my answer. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · There’s not that much in the way of soul-clenching drama or hidden secrets around Johannes Brahms. When you’re talking about Dead Germans who wrote Big Symphonies, he’s the one after Beethoven, alphabetically and chronologically. He was called old-fashioned in his lifetime, and there’s nothing in his work that challenges the ear.
Even people who think his music is boring have admired the orchestration and the incredibly-lush sonic textures. I personally like the Big Serious Works, but he wrote lots of popular waltzes and lieder and of course the Lullaby that the tacky mobile we fasten onto my baby daughter’s crib plays when you wind it up.
The Music · Millions, probably, of incredibly erudite words have been written about the First; I don’t think I have much to add, so I’ll keep this short. Item: The structure is formal, but that doesn’t get in the way of a whole lot of really outstanding melodies. Item: It sounds best played really, really, loud. Item: Especially the whole first movement and the whole last movement. Item: I hate it when classical music leaves you wondering “Is this the end? Is the music actually over?” Brahms doesn’t; he uses lots of exclamation points and draws a line under it and there is absolutely no doubt. Item: The last movement quotes Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. Someone pointed out the similarity to Brahms and he said “Any ass can hear that”. Except for, Brahms orchestrates the strings better. Item: Those big slow slow horns in the last movement; oh my goodness.
Then there’s the Haydn Variations; if you define “Symphony” to mean “Large-scale orchestral work constructed on formal principles”, this would be one. It’s formal all right, way out in Bach territory; and the big central melody is plenty strong enough to hold up all the formal diddling with no observable stress or strain. Then that last variation comes around and neatly sums up all the chopping and changing in a tone of cool triumph.
Sampling It · It’s easy to say “Don’t even think about downloading this, go buy a good CD or two”; but not so easy to say which recording. The good news is that both of these are hard to screw up. For the Haydn Variations, the choice is pretty clear: Mercury Living Presence 434 326-2, Dorati Conducts Brahms & Enesco, which also has Brahms’ fine Hungarian Dances and Enesco’s Roumanian Rhapsody No. 2. Magnificent.
As for the Symphony, though, I don’t know. I have a Giulini/Wiener Philharmoniker CD on Deutsche Grammophon that has both the First and the Haydn and it’s pretty good.
But over the years, I’ve probably listened most of all to EMI Classics 7 54286 2, also pairing the First and the Haydn, featuring Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players. Norrington is famous for “Original Instruments” recordings, and indeed, the orchestras of Brahms’ time were smaller and thinner than today’s. Since Brahms’ music is big and thick, I suspect that a well-done modern performance is probably a better choice. But Norrington’s take is incredibly transparent and intense and well-recorded, and I love it.