Brahms's Violin Concerto
The long-promised concerto for Brahms's great friend Joseph Joachim, written with his expert advice on what was practicable for the instrument, received a lukewarm reception. The concerto is symphonic in character and was not the virtuoso vehicle expected by the audience, although there is plenty to keep the soloist occupied. It has gone on to become one of the most popular of all violin concertos.
Coupled with violin concertos by Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Wieniawski
Joshua Bell (vn) Cleveland Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnányi
Decca 475 6703-5DF2 (126‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Bell’s first entry in the Brahms instantly reveals the soloist’s love of bravura display, his gift for turning a phrase individually in a way that catches the ear, always sounding spontaneous, never self-conscious. Regularly one registers moments of new magic, not least when, in the most delicate half-tones, pianissimos seem to convey an inner communion, after which the impact of bravura fortissimos is all the more dramatic. He rounds off the movement with his own big cadenza and a magically hushed link into the coda, rapt and intense. The slow movement, sweet and songful, gains too from Bell’s love of playing really softly, not least in stratospheric registers. In the finale the vein of fantasy is less apparent. Next to others this can seem a little plain. Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra provide weighty and sympathetic support and the generous Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Wieniawski couplings in commanding performances add to the attractions of the set.
In the Schumann Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra add to the weight and dramatic impact of a performance that defies the old idea of this as an impossibly flawed piece, with Bell bringing out charm as well as power. With full and atmospheric Cleveland sound, well-balanced, the Tchaikovsky makes an excellent choice, particularly if you fancy the Wieniawski Second Concerto for coupling. Bell may not quite match Perlman in either of his recordings for his individual poetry, but within its less searching compass Bell’s is a masterly performance, full of flair.
Coupled with Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Jascha Heifetz (vn) Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Fritz Reiner
RCA Victor Living Stereo 88888 03034-2 (64‘ · ADD) Recorded 1955 & 1957. Buy from Amazon
This combination appears unbeatable. You may think that Reiner starts the opening tutti at an extraordinarily quick speed – until you remember that he’s going to accompany no less a virtuoso than Heifetz, so he’s merely taking it to match his soloist’s performance. You’ll like this if you think that this concerto is too often played in the kind of ‘autumnal’ manner often attributed to Brahms’s compositions but which really shouldn’t apply to many of them. With Heifetz it’s played with respect but without any kind of reverent hushed awe. The slow movement is lovely and the finale is a winner, the playing of an exuberant young man, yet Heifetz was over 50 when he made this record. Reiner conducts the fast movement with a fiery rhythmic impetus that incandescently matches the exhilarating yet unforced bravura of his great soloist. It’s confident throughout – and just listen to his real staccato, a rare thing from violinists.
The RCA recording comes up extraordinarily well – although the soloist is balanced forwardly, he’s naturally focused and the Chicago acoustic ensures a convincing concert-hall balance. If anything, the remastering of the Tchaikovsky is even more remarkable, considering that originally Heifetz was apparently placed right up against the microphone. You soon adapt to the closeness when the fiddle-playing is so peerless; and Heifetz colours Tchaikovsky’s melodies ravishingly.
Violin Concerto. Double Concerto, Op 102*
Julia Fischer (vn) *Daniel Müller-Schott (vc) Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra / Yakov Kreizberg
Pentatone PTC5186 066 (73’ · DDD/DSD). Buy from Amazon
Julia Fischer offers this ideal Brahms coupling in strong and sympathetic readings, joined in the Double Concerto by her brilliant young compatriot, cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. In the Violin Concerto, Fischer takes an expansive view of the first movement, freely varying the tempo as she did in her outstanding version of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. The 23-minute timing even underestimates her spaciousness, as she uses an unidentified cadenza rather shorter than the usual Joachim one (the booklet incorrectly says it’s the Joachim).
Others offer tauter and brisker accounts of the first movement but Fischer amply justifies her spacious and flexible speeds in the feeling of spontaneity. Her performance never feels self-conscious or too studied and her range of tone and dynamic is extreme, bringing pianissimos of breathtaking delicacy. Fischer’s slow movement, too, is expansive while in the finale she lets the tempo relax just enough to allow a persuasive spring in the rhythms, bringing out the Hungarian dance flavour.
The Double Concerto is not nearly as expansive: no doubt the influence of Müller-Schott was important here as the cello takes the lead in introducing each theme, with the cellist matching his partner in warmth and brilliance. Fischer and Müller-Schott are relaxed and easily lyrical in the slow movement, brilliant and thrusting in the finale. An outstanding disc which stands high on the list of this perfect coupling.
Coupled with the Double Concerto
Shaham; BPO / Abbado
DG 469 529-2GH (71’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
This is one of the most impressive of modern versions, intense and full of imagination. Recorded live, it shows Shaham at his spontaneous best.
Coupled with the Tchaikovsky Concerto
D Oistrakh; LPO / Del Mar
BBC Legends BBCL4102-2 (74’ · ADD). Buy from Amazon
This is great violin playing: David Oistrakh is on superb form, playing with his customary warmth. Well accompanied by Norman Del Mar, this builds up to a finale of thrilling power. Inevitably, the 1960 recording shows its years.
Coupled with short works by Chopin, Dinicu, Ravel and Suk
Neveu; Philharmonia / Dobrowen
Dutton mono CDBP9710 (75’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Dutton improves on EMI’s own transfer of this magnificent performance, giving it a winning warmth and body. Neveu was a commanding violinist and there’s never a moment’s doubt that she has the measure (and beyond) of this great work. Her technique is astounding and the accuracy of her playing an object lesson in great musicianship.