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.

Adolf Busch: The Violinist Who Stood Up to Fascism

German violinist, Adolf Busch (1891-1952)
German violinist Adolf Busch (1891-1952)

Tully Potter’s collection of books and CD’s, Adolf Busch- The Life of an Honest Musician, published in 2010, tells the remarkable story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Adolf Busch toured Europe as an exponent of the classic German style of violin playing, which had been associated with Joseph Joachim. The leader of the Busch Quartet, as well as a chamber orchestra, Busch’s approach to violin playing favored musicianship over dazzling displays of virtuosity.

The rise of Hitler in the late 1920s tested the eternally political and backbiting classical music profession. Musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss reportedly didn’t approve of the Third Reich (neither joined the Nazi Party), but both tolerated Hitler, motivated by career preservation. As Potter’s book recounts, the Busch Quartet arrived in Berlin on April 1, 1933, the day the Nazis began a targeted assault on Jewish businesses. Following the evening’s concert, Busch, who was not Jewish, cancelled his entire German tour. He settled in Switzerland and watched as fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler’s efforts to lure back “the world’s greatest German violinist” fell on deaf ears. 

Eventually, Busch emigrated to the United States. He never regained the reputation he had enjoyed in Europe. American audiences were enthralled with younger, flashier artists such as Jascha Heifetz and Busch’s style of playing may have seemed out of date. Listening now, it’s easier to recognize Busch’s artistry. The recording below showcases a deep and mature musicianship, a straightforward and honest sense of timing and a beautifully pure sound.

Yehudi Menuhin hinted at similar attributes as he remembered lessons with Adolf Busch:

Busch’s teaching was…musical rather than violinistic. If he didn’t have Enesco’s flair or glamour, as a musician he was extremely serious and deep, a passionate fundamentalist who ate, breathed, and slept Bach and Beethoven. He played the violin cleanly and beautifully, if with no Russian or Gypsy touch.*

Here is a 1930s recording of Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. The duo founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in 1951.

Here are the second and third movements. Also listen to the Busch Quartet’s dramatic and fiery reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet. 

Adolf Busch was also active as a composer. Listen to his Violin Concerto here. Read this review and watch this video to learn more.

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 327)

Brahms Recordings, Old and New

Brahms recordingLast year, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto. On March 31, Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang followed up with a new recording of the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms. Here is an excerpt of Kavakos playing the stormy Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108.

This CD is another exciting addition to an already vast collection of classic and recent recordings of this music, including performances by Stefan Jackiw, Anne-Sophie MutterJosef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux. I also highly recommend a lesser- known gem: the 1996 recording of Oleh Krysa and Tatiana Tchekina.

The “Rain” Sonata

Let’s listen to Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78, played by Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Brahms wrote this sonata for a friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who also received the Violin Concerto dedication. It was composed in the southern Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summers of 1878 and 1879. The last movement grew out of Brahms’s earlier song, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) from 8 Lieder and Songs, Op. 59. Take a moment and listen to the song and read the text. Do the repeated notes in the piano suggest gently falling raindrops?

In an earlier post we heard how skillfully Brahms develops small and seemingly insignificant musical cells. There is a similar sense of development as this sonata unfolds. Listen for common motives and themes which run throughout the three movements, unifying the piece. The first movement is in 6/4 time. Pay attention to the way the music is flowing. Does Brahms occasionally play rhythmic games which make you lose track of the downbeat?

  1. 00:00 Vivace ma non troppo
  2. 10:45 Adagio
  3. 18:47 Allegro molto moderato

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The second theme of the Adagio is a solemn funeral march (12:44). Consider how this theme contrasts with what came before. One of my favorite moments is when the theme suddenly slips into major when it returns at 16:44.

In the opening of the final movement, notice the dotted rhythm motive from the first movement, first repeated in the bass and then in the higher voices of the piano. Following the quiet agitation of the final movement, were you expecting such a peaceful conclusion in the coda (25:23)?

Now it’s your turn…

In the Listeners’ Club, your voice is important. In the thread below, tell us what you heard in the music. Which recording of the Brahms sonatas is your favorite and why?