The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

rca_lsc-1903_small

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.

Philippe Quint’s Unedited Tchaikovsky

61Fs5yW6KyL._SL500_AA280_In September, Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint released a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, accompanied by conductor Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. If you already own a thousand recordings of the Tchaikovsky, there are good reasons to also include this CD in your collection. Quint offers a distinctive and introspective performance, which emphasizes a rounded, singing tone, even in the most difficult passages of the first movement’s cadenza. He also includes Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard original final movement.

As Philippe Quint explains in this interview, Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, among others. Auer considered the third movement to be “unviolinistic” and set the concerto aside. Tchaikovsky withdrew the dedication and rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who gave an ill-fated premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Leopold Auer later revised the final movement and this is the version we almost always hear performed.

Listen to Quint’s performance of the first and second movements and the standard Auer version of the third movement. Then compare it with Tchaikovsky’s original version of the final movement (below). The influence of ballet seems to be just below the surface in much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout ballet scores like The NutcrackerSwan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky often repeats short, symmetrical phrases. We hear a similar kind of repetition in the third movement of the Violin Concerto (1:01-1:09, for example). Auer condensed the score, cutting these repeated passages.

Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2

This recording also includes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894). Arensky, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, dedicated the Quartet to the memory of Tchaikovsky. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Legend, No. 5 from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. Arensky’s Quartet features the unusual combination of violin, viola and two cellos. Here are the first, second and third movements.

Dylana Jenson’s Sibelius Recording

violinist Dylana Jenson
violinist Dylana Jenson

If you’ve never heard Dylana Jenson’s 1981 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, take a moment and listen. This soulful and blazing performance is widely regarded to be one of the finest recordings of the Sibelius ever made. It’s a rare gem which deserves more attention.

A child prodigy and student of Josef Gingold and Nathan Milstein, Jenson was awarded the silver medal at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when she was seventeen years old. Shortly after recording the Sibelius, her career suffered a devastating setback when she was forced to return a 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu violin which had been given to her as a long-term loan. The wealthy collector who owned the instrument had discovered that Jenson was planning to get married and concluded that she was not sufficiently serious about her career.

Dylana Jenson now plays a modern instrument made for her by Samuel Zygmuntowicz. You can hear that violin on Jenson’s excellent 2009 recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 and Barber Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. A passionate teacher, Dylana Jenson lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here is a live performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Dylana Jenson and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Here are a few more links:

  • A short documentary showing Jenson’s studies with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. This clip offers a fascinating snapshot of twentieth century violin history.
  • The Saint-Saëns Third Violin Concerto around 1980
  • The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1978
  • Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata
  • Sarasate’s Zapateado on the Merv Griffin Show, includes an interview with violin teacher Manual Compinsky

The Artistry of Nathan Milstein

Unknown-5Let’s finish out the week with a few recordings of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary violinists. Infused with elegance, style and thoughtful musicianship, Milstein’s playing never sounds dated. These recordings demonstrate his ability to draw out the most ringing tone from the violin, using the speed and energy of the bow. The purity of his intonation and subtle, well controlled vibrato remain impressive.

Milstein, who was born in Russia and spent much of his life in the United States, was one of the last students of Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. Throughout his life, he was known for constantly finding new ways to approach technical and musical problems. He never stopped experimenting and learning, and as a result, his playing remained at a high level into old age. He performed his final recital at the age of 82.

We’ll start with a 1957 recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53 with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
  2. Adagio ma non troppo (9:08)
  3. Finale. Allegro giocoso (19:48)

Here are the Adagio and Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Solo Sonata No. 1:

…and now, for dessert, here is a spectacular performance of Henri Wieniawski’s Scherzo tarantella, Op. 16:

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.

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.

Viktoria Mullova Goes for Baroque

Viktoria Mullova BachIt’s rare for violin soloists to drastically rethink their approach to a composer, leaving behind two contrasting recordings of the same music. But that’s exactly what happened over the course of 15 years with Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Six Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin.

Following the release of a spectacular 1994 Philips recording featuring a modern interpretation, Mullova re-recorded solo Bach in 2009 on the Onyx label, this time with a Walter Barbiero Baroque bow, gut strings (rather than modern metal strings) and a tuning note lowered from the standard A 440 Hz to the A 415 Hz of Bach’s time. She played a 1750 G.B. Guadagnini violin.

You can read about Mullova’s gradual evolution to Baroque performance practice here. Listen to excerpts of the modern 1994 recording here and then compare it with a sample from the equally great 2009 recording below. Qualities which set this performance apart are the consistent sense of Baroque dance, the distinct drama and tone colors of each variation, and the natural way one variation unfolds into the next.

Here is the monumental Ciaconna from the D minor Partita, BWV 1004:

Find on iTunes

For another sample from Mullova’s 2009 recording, listen to the Fuga from Sonata No. 2 in A Minor. Here is a a live 2013 performance of Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto. 

Born in Russia, Viktoria Mullova was a student of Leonid Kogan. She won first prize at the 1980 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in Helsinki and the Gold Medal at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition. In 1983 she daringly defected to the West during a concert tour, leaving a Soviet-owned Stradivarius behind on a hotel bed.

A survey of recordings from Hilary Hahn to Nathan Milstein shows a diverse range of approaches to solo Bach. Listening to this recording, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling interpretation.

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?