The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

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Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.

Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:

Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.

As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.

The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”

One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.

The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”

The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.

Eight Great Recordings

Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.

Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:

Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony

This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:

Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York

This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:

As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.

Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam

Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic

Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.

David Oistrakh and the French National Radio Orchestra

Few “great recordings” lists are complete without a performance by David Oistrakh. Oistrakh recorded the Brahms Concerto several times. Otto Klemperer conducted this reverberant 1960 studio recording.

Ruggiero Ricci and the Sinfonia of London

This 1991 Ruggiero Ricci CD features sixteen cadenzas including those written by Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Auer, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Adolf Busch, and Nathan Milstein.

Paganini’s Catchy Tune

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the violin, and the violinist, to their limit. 

With Paganini, the age of the dazzling virtuoso rock star was born. Soloists such as Paganini and Franz Liszt became larger-than-life heroes, mesmerizing audiences in Europe’s new public concert halls. Written between 1805 and 1809, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a series of short, unaccompanied virtuoso miniatures. Each caprice features a unique technical challenge, from flying ricochet bowing, to left hand pizzicato, to fingered octaves and multiple stops. Caprice No. 24 is the collection’s electrifying finale.

Let’s start by listening to the catchy theme and variations which have inspired so many composers. Notice how many far-reaching variations spring from Paganini’s theme and the distinct atmosphere created by each variation. Consider the uniquely fun spirit surrounding a musical theme and variations. It’s as if the composer is saying, “Look what I can do!” Each musical adventure seems to eclipse the last, while, like jazz, it’s all based on the same blueprint or musical DNA.

Here is Caprice No. 24 played by Ilya Kaler:

Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini

While Paganini expanded the technical capabilities of the violin, Franz Liszt set out to revolutionize piano technique. In 1838 he published a collection of “studies” based on Paganini Caprices. Beyond the obvious virtuoso fireworks, the music exhibits a striking harmonic inventiveness. Listen to the almost demonic fifth variation (1:55), which would sound at home in a contemporary film soundtrack.

Here is Etude No. 6 performed by Jerome Rose:

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini

In 1863 Johannes Brahms wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Like Liszt, Brahms intended these variations to be “studies,” focusing on a variety of aspects of piano technique. He presented them in two books.

One of Brahms’ favorite compositional techniques is to shift our perception of the downbeat, causing us to become momentarily “lost”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear fairly shocking examples of this rhythmic complexity (3:31). Brahms also begins to move away from Paganini’s established harmonic blueprint into increasingly adventurous territory (4:55, 7:28, 8:47, 15:11, 20:09). The original motives are fragmented, turned upside down and re-harmonized. Suddenly new and strikingly different melodies and harmonies emerge.

Brahms achieves an amazing sense of drama in this piece. At times, it’s easy to hear distinct characters coming to life in the voices. Listen for conversations which take place between these voices, low and high.

Here is Andrea Bonatta:

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The most famous piece inspired by Caprice No. 24 is Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written in 1934. Rachmaninov was the piano soloist at the premiere in Baltimore in November, 1934. The Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. You can hear Rachmaninov’s 1934 recording here.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a musical romp, incorporating all of the fun and virtuosity associated with a theme and variations, but also evoking a wide range of expression. The piece exudes a spirit of humor, from the simultaneously ferocious and comic opening bars, to the sly musical wink at the end. Rachmaninov throws us off guard, first presenting the first variation, a bare bones outline of the theme with the melody stripped away, and then Paganini’s original theme in the violins. In Variation VII the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the medieval Mass of the Dead emerges (3:29). Composers from Berlioz and Mahler to George Crumb have quoted the Dies Irae, but it seems to have had special significance for Rachmaninov, who returned to it in several compositions.

The famous 18th variation (15:05), which inverts the original theme and transposes it to D-flat major, is one of the piece’s most significant moments. As a musical event, it is set up by the two preceding variations, which gradually take us into a tunnel of darkness and anticipation. Listen carefully to the tension and drama in the inner voices, under the 18 variation’s melody line.

Here is a recording with Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:

Coda

There are many other pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Violinists from Eugene Ysaye to Nathan Milstein have put their own stamp on the music. In addition, listen to variations by Witold Lutoslawski, Benny GoodmanAndrew Lloyd Webber and a recent jazzy composition by Fazil Say.

"Vissi d’arte" from Tosca

Unknown-2Through the expressive power of music, opera conveys the deepest and most complex human emotions. It allows us to enter the psyche of characters and experience the drama on a gut level. Opera, with its far flung story lines and sung libretto, can’t be approached literally, as if you’re watching a movie or a play. It has to be experienced as metaphor…a story unfolding through music.

Vissi d’arte (“I Lived for Art”) is one of the most famous arias from Giacomo Puccini’s three act opera, Tosca, written in 1900. It’s an intimate and despairing prayer, sung by Tosca in the second act, as she faces the torture and execution of her beloved Mario Cavaradossi at the hands of the Baron Scarpia. The synopsis of the entire opera is here.

Here is Vissi d’arte, sung by American soprano Leontyne Price:

Here is an English translation:

[quote]I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
Always with sincere faith
my prayer
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I donated jewels to the Madonna’s mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and heaven,
which thus shone with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?[/quote]

The aria’s opening descending line, with its impressionist parallel harmony, gives us a sense of Tosca’s anguish. The music seems numb. Tosca’s intimate moment of reflection is not a prayer rooted in faith but in desperation and hopelessness. Yet, as the aria unfolds, Puccini matches Tosca’s bitter words with one of the most beautiful, soaring melodies imaginable. For me, this irony is what makes Vissi d’arte especially powerful. Through Puccini’s music, we gain access to the full, complex spectrum of Tosca’s emotions.

Throughout Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway score for The Phantom of the Opera there are many clever nods to opera. I’m always struck by the similarities between the melody of All I Ask of You  and Puccini’s Vissi d’arte.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Finale, Act 2[/typography]

The second act concludes with Tosca fatally stabbing Scarpia. Listen to the way Puccini’s music builds tension throughout the scene. Scarpia’s fate is foreshadowed by the icy woodwind chord “Wait.” (1:46):

As Tosca solemnly places the candle next to Scarpia’s body (8:20) the earthly world (the low strings) meets the supernatural (the woodwinds and harp). Drawing back in terror (8:54), Tosca is suddenly overcome with the full realization of what has happened. Puccini denies us the stable harmonic conclusion we would expect at the end of an act. Instead, as the curtain falls, the music abruptly modulates, mirroring Tosca’s visceral shock and confusion.