BARTÓK; BRAHMS Violin Concertos
On record at least, Brahms’s two piano concertos have long been a largely male preserve. Not so the Violin Concerto, some of whose most persuasive interpreters – from Ginette Neveu in the 1940s to Janine Jansen on this latest recording – have been women. Antje Weithaas might also be thought worthy of a place in the pantheon were it not for her bizarre decision to record the concerto without a conductor.
Janine Jansen gives us a lyric reading of rare inwardness and beauty. Such is the tenderness of her playing and the fineness with which she delineates solo lines over which Brahms has strewn words such as lusingando and leggiero ed espressivo (grazioso), you might think her performance too much resembles Keats’s ‘still unravished bride of quietness’. In fact, it is a performance that marries meditation with motion, such is the suppleness of Jansen’s and Pappano’s feel for the concerto’s larger symphonic movement and the hand-in-glove relationship that exists between soloist, conductor and Pappano’s superbly responsive Santa Cecilia orchestra.
It is Weithaas’s conductorless performance which repeatedly threatens to come to a standstill. What’s more, for all the ravishment of her playing, Jansen never threatens to hog the limelight, whereas the conductorless performance, in its very nature perhaps, too often sounds like a sonata for solo violin to which an orchestra has been unaccountably added.
Jansen and Pappano continue their persuasive ways in the Adagio, which is lovingly realised at not too slow a tempo. After which they plausibly opt for an essentially jocund way with the Hungarian finale, avoiding that darker element in the music – what Malcolm MacDonald has called its ‘curious earthy stateliness’ – that you will hear in Anne-Sophie Mutter’s epic 1981 recording with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Thirty years on, the 18-year-old Mutter’s performance still has the power to move and astonish, though its grander manner makes it more a complement to Jansen’s approach than a rival. Both soloists play the cadenza by Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s close collaborator on the work.
Jansen’s coupling is shrewd and imaginative. Brahms originally planned his concerto as a four-movement piece. Add to his completed three movements the two-movement Bartók fragment and you have a five-movement work which continues to mingle lovelorn reveries with Hungarian high jinks of the highest order. It’s an inspired pairing.
I find it remarkable that the Rome recording of the Brahms is live, so rapt is the atmosphere, so inch-perfect the recorded balances. There are a couple of things which might have been fixed in the Walthamstow studio recording of the Bartók but in the great scheme of things they are neither here nor there. If it was a straight choice for the Bartók I would still reckon Kyung Wha Chung’s 1983 Chicago recording with the matchless Georg Solti to be hors concours. But Jansen’s performance is a thing of quality in its own right which provides a strikingly original epilogue to an outstanding disc.
Weithaas’s coupling is similarly inspired, since it was at Joachim’s request that Brahms wrote his late, great String Quintet, Op 111, another work that mingles heroic imaginings with Hungarian high jinks. Once again Weithaas has an ‘angle’, but this time it works. Originally scored for two violins, two violas and cello, the quintet has been newly recast by Weithaas and a colleague for eight violins, six violas, two cellos and double bass. Would Brahms have approved? I can’t think he wouldn’t have, given the superb quality of this Bern performance. The Brahms-loving Arnold Schoenberg did something similar with Verklärte Nacht. What this rescored version also reminds me of at times is Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Now there’s something to ponder.