Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77: a guide to the best recordings
Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Brahms’s Violin Concerto stands alongside Beethoven’s at the peak of the instrument’s repertoire. Charlotte Gardner makes a selection from almost a century of recordings
Critics don’t always get it right. However, when the venerable Eduard Hanslick attended the Viennese premiere of Brahms’s Violin Concerto on January 14, 1879, and declared it to be ‘the most significant violin concerto to appear since Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s’, he wasn’t wrong.
It was also a concerto that wouldn’t have existed without Brahms’s deep, 20-year friendship with its first performer and dedicatee, Joseph Joachim. First, because it would take all the Hungarian virtuoso’s prowess to get a handle on its significant technical demands, even having closely advised Brahms on the violin-writing. But also because, for all the soloist’s blood, sweat and tears, it went against the virtuoso grain of the time. Composed alongside the First Violin Sonata, Op 78, it took shape during the summer of 1878 in the Austrian lakeside resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee. This was where the previous summer Brahms had written his pastoral Second Symphony in D at record speed, and now the concerto nodded to that symphony not just in its own D major tonality and pastoral elements but also by initially being cast in four movements; and while that symphonic structure ultimately gave Brahms so much trouble that he replaced its original slow movement and scherzo with the single ‘paltry Adagio’ we have today, the work remained more a symphonic dialogue than a soloistic showpiece, at least until the finale. Essentially, therefore, only a loyal friend of Brahms, with composer blood running through his own veins, could have been both emotionally invested and intellectually interested enough to take on such a creation.
Brahms with the Concerto’s dedicatee, Joseph Joachim (photography: Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images)
But what a creation to be attached to: an Allegro ma non troppo of power, lyricism and drama; an ardent Adagio; then a virtuosically brilliant Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace flavoured with the folk music of Joachim’s homeland that Brahms loved so much himself.
Challenges and questions
A tight chamber dynamic between soloist and orchestra sits high on this work’s list of desirable qualities. Similarly, as the orchestral score is one of deftly worked textural and timbral counterpoint, it would be a shame if that were rendered opaque by either the musicians or the engineering – a tough ask for early recording technology.
The concerto was praised after its true premiere – on New Year’s Day 1879 in Leipzig – for being ‘one of this composer’s most approachable, translucent and spontaneous creations’. So, spontaneity. Obviously from the soloist, given that’s what their lines invite, but there is also the question of the many mid-movement alternations between dramatic and softer sections, especially in the first. Clearly you should hit Brahms’s own sparsely inserted ritardandos; but for the remainder, do you keep tempo consistent or opt for something more flexible and episodic? Most opt for the latter, to varying degrees. Whatever you do, it must not sound bitty. For this Collection, you can assume that the architectural handling is convincing unless otherwise stated.
A further first-movement tempo dilemma is that its overall Allegro ma non troppo (‘fast but not too fast’) directive opens the field to anything from leisurely paced grandeur to a faster lilt, subsequent movements then balanced accordingly. This Collection’s durations thus range, staggeringly, between 35 minutes (Adolf Busch) and 47'10" (Rachel Barton Pine).
Finally, cadenzas. Brahms didn’t consider himself violinistically expert enough to compose one, so he asked Joachim to do the honours. Joachim’s has therefore become the de facto choice, but shouldn’t be put on too high a pedestal: he didn’t publish it until 1902, after Brahms’s death, by which time he’d significantly lengthened and altered it – and away from the late Brahms’s pleasure, because there also exists an as-yet-unrecorded 1884 version Brahms sketched out for one of his favourite interpreters, Joachim’s pupil Marie Soldat, which restored it to what he remembered of his preferred Vienna 1879 incarnation. Of the other options, Kreisler’s has been dusted off the most. Recent years have seen some champions for the Busoni, its bold timpani interjections nodding to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – the work that preceded it at the Leipzig premiere. For several in one place, look up Ruggiero Ricci’s 1991 recording with the Sinfonia of London under Norman Del Mar (Biddulph, 2/92).
Fritz Kreisler begins things in 1927, live with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra under Leo Blech (4/28; now on Biddulph, Naxos and Warner, 8/09), displaying the brisk tempos typical of the concerto’s very earliest recordings. Kreisler himself is full of debonair charm but with a woolly, drily captured orchestra that also delivers a rather staid finale. His 1936 reading with John Barbirolli and the warmer, fuller and more red-blooded-sounding London Philharmonic Orchestra is more satisfying, and their stirring Adagio features one of this Collection’s most flexible woodwind openings.
The Brahms is arguably not where Jascha Heifetz left his greatest contributions to recorded posterity. His 1955 studio take with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago SO (RCA, 3/56) has superior sound quality but the orchestra is nowhere near as on fire as what in 1935 Arturo Toscanini gets out of the New York Philharmonic, who snap thrillingly at Heifetz’s heels through their first rising exchange. This live take has Heifetz his athletically aristocratic self, but with his upbeat tempos less uncomfortably racehorse and more about him than mere brilliance. Additionally, his adaptation of the cadenza by his teacher, Joachim pupil Leopold Auer, sounds less manic than his self-penned creation with Reiner.
In fact these earliest recordings tell of a generation less likely to plump for the Joachim cadenza. Take Adolf Busch, live before an enraptured audience in 1943 with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony and his friend William Steinberg. Presenting this Collection’s briskest outer movements (18'57" and 7'10"), Busch sometimes struggles to stay on top not just of Brahms’s lines but even his own cadenza. But that’s also because he’s absolutely giving it some, and infecting the orchestra as he goes – listen to the urgency with which the horn duets with him in the Adagio at 2'51". Essentially, for every slightly uncomfortable moment you get five more of soul-filled transcendence.
In 1944 comes a live reading with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Artur Rodzinski from Joachim pupil Bronisław Huberman, who aged 14 had moved Brahms to tears playing it. His fierily impetuous first movement is crowned by Hugo Heermann’s gypsyish 1896 cadenza (no loyalty to Joachim there), followed by a foxy Adagio – Huberman’s final rising line’s pronounced portato a prime example of his Joachim-inspired clean, relatively detached phrasing – and a springing finale. Rodzinski conducts as a true partner, and the between-movement applause and retunes add to the atmosphere.
Someone who did use the Joachim cadenza was Hungarian Joseph Szigeti, who studied with Joachim’s pupil Jeno˝ Hubay, and with the polished grandeur of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1945 you get this Collection’s best recorded sound so far, plus strong dialogue with a conductor who’s a fellow Hungarian violinist and Hubay pupil. Szigeti’s own penetrating tone isn’t necessarily always ‘nice’ but it has a fabulous repertoire of colour, articulation and overall rhetoric.
With Ginette Neveu the Joachim cadenza settles as the default, meaning that from henceforth you can assume its presence unless told otherwise. Her obvious choice is her 1946 studio recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Issay Dobrowen (Warner, 4/48). But then came three live takes, and although Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the NDR Symphony Orchestra at the Hamburg Music Hall in 1948 could have been better captured, this performance is brimming with heart and sense of partnership, Neveu sounding fierily soulful.
Romantic intensity: Yehudi Menuhin’s Brahms is captivating (photography: Mike Evans/EMI Archives)
Yehudi Menuhin’s noble, flexible account the following year with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra inaugurates the slightly more relaxed tempos that will become the new norm, the ambient surrounding space lending an atmospheric halo. And what an account, with the orchestra’s shapely might and passionate interplay with multicoloured Menuhin, whose own playing (featuring the Kreisler cadenza) feels palpably connected to the period’s opera greats via vocal-sounding vibrato, portamento inflections (the Menuhin slide) and rubato shaping, reaching fever pitch in his Adagio. Even the finale, which kicks off feeling only just on the right side of stolid, quickly convinces with its magisterial swing.
Ida Haendel and Sergiu Celibidache’s 1953 reading with the London Symphony Orchestra may be in mono but there’s a nicely balanced richness and depth. To Celibidache’s grandeur, Haendel brings poised expression combining mellow tone with physical power and bite. Her gorgeously sculpted cadenza has the silent surrounding space sounding wonderfully present, and colouristically striking moments include, at 21'11" in the coda, Haendel’s trembling vibrato over her sweetly ethereal descent.
Johanna Martzy’s 1954 account packs a punch (photography: Testament Records)
Come the following year there’s Johanna Martzy with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Paul Kletzki. Another Hungarian Hubay pupil, Martzy’s open-hearted, rich-toned power and lyricism, coloured with a distinctively pronounced vibrato, combines throughout to fabulous effect with the Philharmonia’s own thunder and melt, all of it beautifully shaped and lucidly handled, with bright, warm, natural recording. The finale is a fantastic combination of physical might and twinkle-toed dignity, and a zinging Mendelssohn Violin Concerto follows.
Nathan Milstein’s 1953/54 reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Steinberg returns us briefly to the previous generation’s brisker tempos, everything feeling spontaneously flowing and connected, the orchestra sleek, chic and plump, and solos shining out. Milstein’s playing is sweet, clean and elegant, with every colour thought through – for instance gorgeously adapting his vibrato to throaty-husky for the first movement’s bar 467 lusingando – and with his own captivating cadenza. The only thing is whether it’s all too controlled.
Leonid Kogan’s direct-toned, virile strength is more drily captured in 1958 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Kirill Kondrashin, but attractively so; and while the microphone moves ever closer to him over the subsequent movements, the sound quality still trumps his live recording the same year with a fiery Boston Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Monteux – his US debut, so listen-worthy (now on Doremi). Both are a far cry from Arthur Grumiaux’s equally compelling but softer, polished sweetness the same year with Eduard van Beinum (Jube Classics), the faster of two beautiful readings with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Of Henryk Szeryng’s four recordings, you can’t go wrong with his vibrantly captured 1959 account with Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra. Szeryng’s initial entry comes with a wild, speedy bang, and while some might find his tone a bit sharp, it works with the gleaming, excited orchestra. A nice individual touch is his subtle rejection of the slurs in bars 539‑42, although generally he follows dynamic markings to the letter.
For a romantic-end 1960s reading you could head to Christian Ferras with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG, 11/64), but for romance with living-life-on-the-edge thrill factor, head to Zino Francescatti with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra’s shimmering might finding a perfect foil in Francescatti’s silvery slender freedom coloured by febrile vibrato. The finale is resplendent, crisply rhythmic orchestral weight meeting airy, playful brilliance from Francescatti, with the clarity of bar 128’s oboe line typifying the lucidity throughout.
David Oistrakh tends to be miked at the expense of his orchestras, although that’s no bad thing with the acerbic-toned Moscow RTV Symphony Orchestra under Kondrashin (CDK, 12/54). His recording with Franz Konwitschny and the Staatskapelle Dresden has much to recommend it (DG, 7/55), although balance is better with Klemperer (Warner, 11/61). Yet there’s a compelling tautness in 1969 with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, who are wonderful-sounding if not always wonderfully captured.
Anne‑Sophie Mutter’s spacious 1981 reading with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic decidedly trumps her slower, more mannered take with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic (DG, 12/97). First, the magisterial beauty of Karajan’s introduction. Then velvety Mutter knocking the proverbial socks off her entry with her darkly fiery, legato intensity, after which further ear-pricking moments include the clarity with which at bar 75 in her singing, luxuriously vibrato’d Adagio she drops to the tiniest whisper.
Ma non troppo
While the odd significantly slower reading is now popping up – Itzhak Perlman’s first movement is 24'42" with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Warner, 11/77) – Nigel Kennedy sets a new record in 1990 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Klaus Tennstedt, serving up a sticky, bitty-feeling 26'16" first movement; and their whopper 11'19" Adagio hangs together only slightly better. Still, the actual sound they all make is fabulous, their more standard-tempo finale is fun-filled, and Kennedy’s own cadenza is a must-listen for its English pastoral slant (shades of The Lark Ascending) and spooky double-stops.
Then in 2002 a satiny Rachel Barton Pine with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar lands a reflective, sepia-toned reading whose huge 26'41" first movement does largely convince, although it’s a shame that her correspondingly soft self-penned cadenza sits only as an end-of-disc bonus, losing out to the Joachim. Two period-flavour boons are Pine playing the 1742 Guarneri del Gesù selected for Marie Soldat by Brahms, and Joachim’s supersize Violin Concerto No 2 ‘in the Hungarian style’ of 1857 as partner work.
For period-aware with pep, head to Gidon Kremer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for a momentum-rich live account boasting minimal non-marked tempo fluctuation, athletically nimble orchestral playing and Kremer’s luminous tone right in the thick of the crystal-clear, committed conversation – and sometimes even deferentially underneath it. Add George Enescu’s folky cadenza of 1903, plus a tip-top Double Concerto with Clemens Hagen, and while Kremer’s 1982 live performance with Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG, 7/83) – sporting Reger’s lesser-spotted cadenza – is a fine ‘classic’ choice, this is the one.
With Chamber Orchestra
Beyond increased cadenza variety, the other 21st-century development has been chamber orchestras. A striking play-directed effort featuring a self-penned cadenza comes from Thomas Zehetmair with the Northern Sinfonia, Zehetmair sounding tense, rushed and closely recorded, and the valiant orchestra struggling to stay alongside. Antje Weithaas’s lyrical 2014 play-directing attempt with Camerata Bern (AVI-Music, 1/16) is slightly more successful.
Isabelle Faust’s flowing 2011 reading with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra takes some acclimitisation if you like hefty whoomph from your Brahms, but stick with it. Beyond a similar tempo approach to Kremer and Harnoncourt, warm textural clarity and agile orchestral chamber responsiveness, colouristic treasures include the strings’ first-movement bar 495 accents articulated as tiny stroked swells (16'00") and the love bestowed on absolutely delectable-sounding woodwind and horns; and while Faust’s sound is smaller than many, it’s lyrical and virtuosically thrilling. To that, add the Busoni cadenza, a radiantly pure, pastoral Adagio featuring joyously close dialogue and a rip-roaring finale that barely touches the ground with its lilting, neatly clipped aerial spring. An equally radiant Second Sextet follows.
After a fine ‘classic’ 2000 take with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG, 8/02), a speedy, spontaneous and virtuoso Gil Shaham paired in 2019 with Eric Jacobsen and The Knights for an airily chamber-weight return to the concerto’s earliest speeds (19'25", 8'05", 7'38"). Here, what you sometimes miss in orchestral heft you gain in a palpable chamber dynamic, reaping especial dividends in the Adagio, which opens with the oboe less a soloist than the top line of a beautifully balanced wind ensemble. It’s all surprisingly refreshing, preceded by an equally revisionary Beethoven Concerto.
Still, the norm has remained a spaciously paced symphonic sound, often with thoroughly classic disc pairings. Up there with the best is Tasmin Little’s beautifully engineered 1991 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vernon Handley – paired with a super Sibelius Concerto – with its blend of symphonic weight and flowing classical purity, Little herself bringing silkily powerful punch and lyricism.
Joshua Bell with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1994 boasts an elegantly spirited, clean-lined orchestra, and although Bell brings bravura, it’s his exquisitely quiet piano moments that particularly strike, especially in his idiomatic self-penned cadenza, which melts as a mere whisper into a time-suspended coda. The generous surrounding package consists of the Schumann, Dohnányi, Tchaikovsky and second Wieniawski violin concertos.
Other 1990s offerings that, while not benchmark-setting, are classily classic include Pinchas Zukerman with Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic (RCA/Sony, 4/96), Frank Peter Zimmermann’s elegant live account with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Berlin Philharmonic (Warner, 5/96) and a fiery Maxim Vengerov with Barenboim and the Chicago SO (Teldec/Warner/Elatus, 3/99).
A new-century standout comes from warmly spry Julian Rachlin with the rich, bright Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons. With crystal-clear recording and preceded by a buoyantly limpid Mozart Third Violin Concerto, this has everyone crisp of articulation, Rachlin strong on both bite and husky sweetness; and while they deliver on punch, the score’s opportunities for loaded stillness are also leapt upon. Take their Adagio bar 64 pause (4'46"), which is entered so softly, and with the silence so sudden and total, that its effect is heart‑rending.
Two fine pairings with the Double Concerto are, first, Julia Fischer with the Netherlands Philharmonic under Yakov Kreizberg, joined for the Double by Daniel Müller-Schott (Pentatone, 8/07), then Vadim Repin with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Truls Mørk on board for the Double. Here, rich-toned Repin’s first-movement gift is a supremely polished revival of Heifetz’s cadenza, sounding altogether more convincing now it is allowed to breathe.
Renaud Capuçon’s nod to the Golden Age is Vienna-shaped, teaming up with Daniel Harding and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for an impassioned, satiny, spaciously sailing and chamber-aware interpretation featuring the Kreisler cadenza, followed by a romantic-leaning Berg Concerto – a pairing Christian Tetzlaff repeats in 2022 with the Joachim cadenza. This, recorded live with the Danish Symphony Orchestra and Robin Ticciati, sees Tetzlaff verily explode up his initial entry, thereafter bringing both bridge-rattling unbuttonedness and extreme piano sweetness, while the orchestra combine grandeur with devilish charm and athleticism. Sometimes Tetzlaff’s phrasing and metric flexibility can feel a bit mannered or rushed, but mostly it’s just magnetic and full of thoughtful detail. For a great example of some of the conversational colour Ticciati coaxes out, listen to the cellos’ vivacious duetting at 2'25" in the finale.
Upping the paprika
Rachel Barton Pine isn’t the only violinist to have spotted Hungarian pairing mileage. Baiba Skride pairs hers with vivid Hungarian Dances, accompanied by her pianist sister, Lauma Skride (Orfeo, 10/11). In 2013 Leonidas Kavakos beguiles with pianist Péter Nagy in Bartók’s two Rhapsodies and six Romanian Folk Dances, plus four Hungarian Dances, after a mighty Concerto with Chailly and the Gewandhaus. High on slower-tempo reflection, this one’s Adagio pausings might feel over-egged to some, but no other violinist has taken its bar 74 calando marking so seriously, and Kavakos’s finale brilliance extends in bar 99 to inserting his own double-stopped ornament (2'08").
In 2015 Janine Jansen is at her multifaceted best with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia through a live recording of both tenderness and bang, paired with a softly exquisite studio Bartók First Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Brahms’s immediate world
In 2013, before Clara Schumann’s three Romances became so popular, Lisa Batiashvili’s polished, lyrical, spontaneous-feeling readings with Alice Sara Ott are the cherry on the cake to her superb Concerto with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann, set in an attractively ample acoustic, over which she displays similar qualities to her orchestral partnering, balancing thunder and might with chamber intimacy and lucidity. There’s also the Busoni cadenza, bigger-boned and more spacious than Faust’s, with a huge dynamic and dramatic sweep. Then, after a ravishing Adagio of flowing wax and wane and edge-of-seat dialogue, a nimbly fun finale containing some unexpected romance via Batiashvili’s suddenly softly legato delivery at bar 222 (5'07") – thus not quite hitting the score’s forte, but a gorgeously rendered surprise.
Lisa Batiashvili and Christian Thielemann’s beautifully polished account is a top choice (photo: Matthias Creutziger)
It’s a wonder there aren’t more pairings with the First Violin Sonata, but Vadim Gluzman with Angela Yoffe is a winner, attached to a Concerto with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and James Gaffigan full of old-world class, with a darkly feisty finale; and while you wish at points that the orchestra had had whatever Gluzman had had for breakfast, horns and woodwind are thoroughly in the game for the Adagio.
Few violinists go in entirely off-piste pairing directions but Hilary Hahn’s Brahms with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is followed by the Stravinsky Concerto, both works zinging through her gleaming, focused tone, whistle-clean attack and fabulous sense of line. Specific Brahms pleasures include in the first movement how Hahn means serious business in her climaxes, and the elegant orchestra’s shimmering anticipation when gearing up towards an unleashing.
Then in 2019 Augustin Hadelich, with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Miguel Hartha-Bedoya, opts for the Ligeti Concerto to partner a Brahms of a sinewy darkness and much reflective stillness, sporting a dramatic self-penned cadenza whose intensity is heightened by Hadelich’s audible breathing.
So there we go. Writing a Collection on Brahms’s Violin Concerto is arguably a fool’s game: so many recordings by so many greats. It’s also a work that feels as though it went deep for Brahms, and equally so for many today. Hopefully your favourite made the cut, but if it didn’t, you have my heartfelt apologies and sympathy!
Lisa Batiashvili; Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann
With polished recording and a deliciously ample acoustic, this lucid, beautifully shaped reading full of close exchange offers surely a perfect ratio of fire and romance, push and pull. Batiashvili herself sounds spontaneous and heart-prickingly lyrical, despatching her virtuosities with glowing-toned finesse.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today