Benjamin Britten famously said that he would sometimes play “the whole of Brahms” (whatever that means) just to remind himself how bad it was. Britten was an arse bandit. Perhaps this explains Peter Pears’ strangulated voice.
I also remember a quote by Ken Russell that Brahms’ music reminded him of Victorian sepia photographs.
It’s interesting that most people associate Brahms with his chamber and orchestral works, when around three-quarters of his output includes voices. Many, many songs (countless treasures in there), numerous works for multiple solo voices and instruments, and much for choir (Brahms conducted several choirs through the course of his lifetime) and choir and orchestra.
I tend to believe that the problem with a lot of Brahms performance lies not so much with the use of vibrato, larger orchestras, modern pianos, or whatever (all of which Brahms experienced on occasion), but the approaches to phrasing and articulation – already problematic in editions appearing soon after his death (for example those of the piano music by Sauer) which tend to smooth out the many very subtle details Brahms notated, and replace his sometimes fragmentary and delicate approach to the balance between small-scale units and longer lines with a rather homogenous approach stressing maximum continuity.
The rests are very important (Brahms took immense care over them when preparing editions); many pedal markings in others’ editions of the piano music make little sense, nor do some conductors’ attempts to artificially make contrasting fragments cohere into a continuous whole, negating some of the inner tensions.
There are indeed some composers whose work is more likely than that of others to invite extreme reactions, although I would not immediately single out Brahms as a particularly notable example, for all that there are some for whom he could do no wrong and others who detest much of his work – in other words, I’m less than convinced that these extreme positions vis-à-vis Brahms are especially common. Britten’s loathing of Brahms, whilst well known, was by no means universal; he had, for example, a lot of time for the D minor piano concerto. I happen to think it’s dull.
Delius strikes me as one example of a composer whose work tends to elicit mostly very positive or very negative responses; Havergal Brian is another. Why it is that certain composers’ works more often than not tend to attract these extreme reactions is quite another matter.
Speaking personally, I love Brahms’ music.