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.

Happy Birthday, Carl Flesch

violinist and pedagoge Carl Flesch (1873-1944)
violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch (1873-1944)

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of influential Hungarian-born violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch (1873-1944). As a teacher, Flesch produced some of the twentieth century’s most notable violinists, including Henryk Szeryng, Ginette Neveu, Josef Hassid, Ivry Gitlis, and Ida Haendel. His book, Art of Violin Playing and his Scale System are still used today.

Boris Schwartz, a student of Flesch and the author of Great Masters of the Violin, writes:

His dominant quality seemed German, marked by a classical approach to music based on scholarly study, purity of style devoid of showmanship, a sturdy sense of rhythm tending toward slow tempos, and a deliberate objectivity of interpretation.

Schwartz stresses that Flesch’s approach to playing and teaching was deeply intellectual, often at the expense of “emotion” and “impulse”. “Use your head for your technique and your heart for your music” was one of Flesch’s mottos. He modernized violin technique, helping students to analyze their own problems and develop solutions. A master of well-thought-out fingerings, Flesch collected and catalogued possible fingerings for various passages in the violin repertoire.

In the final years of his life, Carl Flesch fled the Nazis, and settled eventually in Switzerland. In 1931, following the stock market crash of 1929, Flesch was forced to sell his 1725 “Brancaccio” Stradivarius. He replaced the Strad with a fine Petrus Guarnerius violin.

Here is Flesch playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 20. The piano accompaniment was written by Polish pianist Ignace Strasfogel:

Here is a singing, Romantic 1936 performance of Handel’s Violin Sonata in A major:

Flesch called the Beethoven Violin Concerto,

One of the most difficult works because it is built on introspection. The first movement consists almost entirely of embellishments, of passing notes into which one must put expression and life. Most of the time one hears it played like an etude-there are not three or four violinists in existence who play it well.

Here is his 1943 recording with the Lucern Orchestra:

Here is Jota by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla:

Hiro Kurosaki Plays Handel

Hiro Kurosaki's recording of Handel SonatasYou may be familiar with classic recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonatas by Isaac SternNathan MilsteinHenryk Szeryng and Szymon Goldberg. For the most part, they’re all Romantic performances, emphasizing a large, singing tone and lots of vibrato. For a slightly different take, add to the list an excellent 2003 Baroque recording by violinist Hiro Kurosaki and harpsichordist William Christie.

No one knows if Handel actually wrote all seven of the sonatas on this disk. A few are suspected to be the work of other composers, now long forgotten. The D-major sonata (HWV 371), one of Handel’s last works, and youthful G-major sonata (HWV 358) are authentic. Dr. Suzuki included the F major and D major sonatas in Book 6 and the A major sonata in Book 7.

Born in Japan, Hiro Kurosaki now lives in Austria and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He plays a 1690 Giovanni Battista Rogeri violin on this recording, an instrument made during Handel’s lifetime. Kurosaki and Christie claim that their interpretation was influenced by Handel’s opera writing. Listen to this excerpt from the 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare, for a comparison.

Here is Sonata No. 4 in D major:

Also listen to the F major and G major sonatas.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor

Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, Op. 3, No. 6 is well known to all Suzuki violin students. Vivaldi (1678-1741) contributed to the development of the violin as a solo instrument, dazzling audiences throughout Europe with shocking new sounds. He wrote over 500 concertos. For many years Vivaldi also directed the female music ensemble at Ospedale della Pietàa school for orphaned girls in Venice.

Let’s compare two excellent but contrasting performances. The first is a modern performance by legendary Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988). The three short movements are Allegro, Largo and Presto (fast, slow, fast):

Now let’s hear a performance which attempts to capture the instruments and style of Vivaldi’s time. Baroque soloists often added ornamentation and improvisatory elements similar to the approach of a jazz musician today. This performance is by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra:

Do you prefer one of these recordings over another? It’s amazing that we can approach the same piece in so many different ways.

La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?