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.

Mozart’s 259th Birthday

The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.
The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.

 

Tomorrow marks the 259th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. If you’re looking for an exciting way to celebrate, consider picking up a copy of Rachel Barton Pine’s newly-released Mozart recording. The CD features all five Mozart Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. Barton Pine is accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Her infectious enthusiasm for the music is apparent in this informational clip.

Born in Chicago in 1974, Rachel Barton Pine is known for her adventurous and eclectic approach to the violin, which includes a passion for Heavy Metal and her own variations on Happy BirthdayIn Mozart’s time, performers were expected to play their own cadenzas, adding freedom and spontaneity to concerto performances. Rachel Barton Pine continues this tradition on this recording.

She plays the 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu, a violin named after nineteenth century violinist Marie Soldat-Roeger, a close friend of Brahms.

51o04-avQRL._SX425_

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

As Rachel Barton Pine mentions in her program notes, Leopold Mozart published an influential treatise on violin playing in 1756, the year his son Wolfgang was born. Mozart’s youthful violin concertos, all written during his teenage years, reflect a joyful, fun-loving attitude towards the instrument. Leopold lamented to the young Mozart,

You have no idea how well you play the violin. If only you would do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit and fire, as if you were the greatest violinist in Europe!

Mozart’s twenty seven piano concertos are more mature. Concerto No. 23 in A major was finished on March 2, 1786, around the time The Marriage of Figaro premiered. This work contains a universe of expression. From the opening of the introduction, a musical conversation unfolds, first between the strings and woodwinds and then including the sparkling voice of the piano. The final movement is a spirited romp. Listen for the exuberant bassoon, string, and clarinet lines beginning around 19:18. The second movement takes us to a completely different world. The piano emerges as a solitary, mournful voice. In the middle of the movement (13:52), we hear music which would later turn up in Act II of Don Giovanni in the trio, Ah taci, ingiusto core” (“Ah, be quiet unjust heart”).

Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1980 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro 0:00
  2. Adagio 11:20
  3. Allegro assai 18:51

Judas Maccabaeus, Handel’s Hanukkah Oratorio

Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor.
Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor.

George Frideric Handel’s 1746 oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus tells the story of Hanukkah. The oratorio, set to a libretto by Thomas Morell, is a three act dramatization of the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC), in which a Jewish army rose up against the Seleucid Empire (present day Syria). The revolt, which ultimately led to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, was sparked by the actions of a lone Jewish priest, Mattathias. In defiance of the mandate to worship Zeus, Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who was about to offer pagan sacrifice and tore down the pagan alter.

It’s a drama which seems ripe for Handel’s triumphant music. But for all of Judas Maccabaeus’ religious overtones, it’s likely that Handel actually conceived the work as a clever piece of secular political propaganda. Its mythic heroism coincided with Prince William, Duke of Cumberland’s victory at the Battle of Culloden, a conflict which marked the end of the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Judas Maccabaeus moves from mournful despair (the unrelenting quiet intensity of the Chorus For Sion lamentation make at 17:46) to a stirring rallying cry (Arm, arm, ye brave 29:52), and ultimately to triumphant exultation. Listen to the way Handel’s counterpoint becomes increasingly complex and euphoric in the Chorus, Hear us, O Lord (55:56).

Suzuki’s “Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus”

Shinichi Suzuki’s transcription of the theme of the Chorus, See, the conqu’ring hero comes, is included in Book 2 of the Suzuki Violin Repertoire. Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus helps students develop long, sustained bows and a feeling of relaxed, springy connection to the string. It’s also a great piece for bow division and the encouragement of the push of the elbow and upper arm, which allows the bow to reach the frog. For full bows, students should visualize the bow’s motion as an arch (following the dip of the bow stick), not as a straight line.

Here is Handel’s original version, performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The jubilant chorus occurs towards the end of Judas Maccabaeus. 

Beethoven’s Variations

Beethoven wrote twelve far-reaching variations for cello and piano on Handel’s theme. Here is a 1966 performance by cellist Maurice Gendron and pianist Jean Françaix: