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.

Remembering Lydia Mordkovitch

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Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014)

Russian-born violinist Lydia Mordkovitch passed away earlier in the week. She was a student of David Oistrakh and served as his assistant in the late 1960s. In this interview she talks about her Russian musical roots and the influence of Oistrakh’s teaching.

Mordkovitch emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1980. In 1995 she joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music. Her extensive discography on the Chandos label includes music of English composers (violin concertos of Arnold Bax, William Alwyn and George Dyson) and Max Bruch’s seldom heard Second and Third Violin Concertos.

Listening to a sample of Lydia Mordkovitch’s recordings, I was struck by the soulfulness and honesty of her musicianship. While many contemporary violinists seem to sound alike, her tone was distinctive. The Loure from J.S. Bach’s Third Partita (the second movement in the final clip below) is an example of Mordkovitch’s singing approach to sound and wide array of tonal colors.

Strad Magazine offered the following description in a 2009 review of Mordkovitch’s CD of Russian violin music:

To hear Lydia Mordkovitch at the peak of her interpretative powers is like being thrown back half a century when the likes of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin held sway…She has never believed in half measures and here every note is played to its maximum expressive potential, whether it is a raging violin fortissimo or a gentle viola pizzicato.

Here is the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:

Olivier Messiaen’s Thème et variations was written in 1932 as a wedding gift for the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos:

Here is Mordkovitch’s 1987 recording of J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E:

Music Inspired by Scotland

Unknown-2Tomorrow all eyes will be on Scotland. A referendum will determine whether the ancient and mysterious land of rugged mountains, long, picturesque Lochs and remote castles will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. Throughout its tumultuous history (which included the arrival of the Romans around 71 AD, and later, Catholic-Protestant religious wars in which the Scots sometimes fought alongside the French), Scotland has maintained a separate identity. The Treaty of Union brought Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1706. Today, independence could have significant and possibly devastating implications for Scotland’s orchestras.

The landscapes and legends of Scotland have served as an inspiration for many composers. Here is a sample:

Mendelssohn Travels to Scotland

Felix Mendelssohn toured Scotland in 1829 when he was twenty years old. During a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a miraculous sea cavern on the desolate, rocky coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 was finished a year later on December 16, the one day of the year that the cave is fully illuminated by sunlight.

Mendelssohn’s letters suggest that he was deeply affected by his experience at Fingal’s Cave. It was here that the opening motive of the overture came into his mind.

Listen to the way the music evokes an atmosphere of mystery, even suggesting the supernatural. You can almost feel the motion of the waves in the opening, but also listen to the long, sustained tones which emerge in the brass and woodwinds (0:21). At 3:52 we hear a “surround sound” effect as the distinct voices of a variety of instruments add their statements. Mendelssohn’s music covers wide emotional territory, but at the end we’re left with the same sense of wonder and mystery we felt in the opening.

This recording features Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Mendelssohn’s visit to the the ruined abby at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired the opening seed for the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. He wrote:

In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.

You might hear a faint echo of Scottish folk music in the theme of the second movement. Beyond that, the symphony qualifies as “pure music,” with no overt references to Scotland. The movements flow into one another with little break, creating a sense of continuity. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the surprising way it ends. The majestic, joyous theme of the coda seems to leave behind everything which has come before

This is Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert in 2008:

  1.  Introduction. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come I (0:00)
  2. Scherzo. Vivace non troppo (15:06)
  3. Adagio cantabile (19:21)
  4. Finale guerriero. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai (27:59)

Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy

Completed in 1880 and dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 offers another German view of Scotland. The four movements are based on Scottish folk songs“Auld Rob Morris”, “The Dusty Miller”, I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie” and “Hey Tuttie Tatie.” Fragments of “Auld Rob Morris” return throughout the piece. Listen for its quiet final statement at the end. 

Here is Jascha Heifetz’s legendary recording with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony of London:

  1. Introduction; Grave, Adagio cantabile (0:00)
  2. Scherzo; Allegro (7:44)
  3. Andante sostenuto (12:14)
  4. Finale; Allegro guerriero (18:54)

An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise

The Orkney Islands are at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In 1985 English composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a piece which captures the raucous atmosphere of a traditional wedding celebration on the islands. Listen for the entrance of a bagpiper at the end.

Here is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies:

Sunrise in the Orkney Islands
Sunrise in the Orkney Islands

Nicola Benedetti’s Scottish Homecoming

Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming, A Scottish FantasyScottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti’s recordingHomecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, released on July 4, has made it to number 19 on the UK pop charts. The CD features traditional Scottish folk music like The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, as well as German composer Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46. 

If you’re looking for authentic Scottish fiddle playing, you may be disappointed, but all in all this seems like a fun and eclectic recording. Benedetti talks about the recording herehere and here. Listen to samples here.

Here is an excerpt of the Scottish Fantasy: