Brahms’ Violin Concerto

The Brahms Violin Cocnerto has always been a favorite, though I’d never dug too deeply into the catalog. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 100_75141982 recording with von Karajan and the Berliners was my early favorite, and it remains so. Mutter is both emphatic and delicate, a violinist of great dynamic range who even at the young age recorded the Brahms on DGG (2532-032) showed sophistication on par with artists like Heifetz and Szigeti who recorded and performed it over and over again.

I was reawakened to the piece recently after salvaging a copy of Michele Auclair’s 1958 performance with Otterloo and the unfashionable, but underestimated, Vienna Symphony. (Originally on Philips, my copy is a 100_7517French Fontana reissue 0554-031.) I’d not previously known much about Auclair, but this performance was a stunner. Vivid and energetic, her tone is similar to Mutter in its range and intensity, and its rhythmic variation. While standard setters like Heifetz are reliably true to the score and its required virtuosity, Auclair is a artisan who makes the work her own, seemingly without effort. I don’t find it available on CD.

Effortless has to also be the word to describe Nathan Milstein’s stunning 1954 Capitol recording with Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony (8271). Dazzling in his articulation, his chords are less stern than Heifetz or Mutter, but his melodies flow like streams of poetry straight from the composer’s mind. The mono sound on early Capitol is sometimes unreliable, but with a mint copy and the luck of a good pressing, it is almost indistinguishable from stereo. 100_7518Pittsburgh has always had a strong band, and while it cannot match the force of Berlin under Karajan, the impact here is fantastic. For $10 you can pick up a vinyl copy on eBay. Available on CD here.

This is a great example of how collecting sometimes rewards scarcity over quality; Milstein’s second 100_75191960 stereo Capitol record (8560), which is only nominally more vivid in its sound and markedly more sedate in its tenor. As with Szigeti, Milstein went on to re-record the Brahms into old age, on DGG, a rendition I didn’t make it more than a few minutes 100_7526into.

Some of the records that command highest value are from female soloists. I’m rather unimpressed by the two top performers, Ida Haendel and Johanna Martzy. Martzy’s 1954 record, with Kletzki and the Philharmonia on Columbia, is bright and clean on the Toshiba reissue I’m listening to (1012), but doesn’t move me. It is technically pure but the tone is square, uncreative. The 100_7524orchestral accompaniment is generic, with the band not seemingly engaged. This isn’t their repertoire; their Brahms of this era, including the Karajan recordings, is similarly uninspired.

Another let down is Ida Haendel, whose 1955 HMV recording with Celibidache and the LSO fetches high prices. I am working with the American RCA Bluebird pressing (1051), which produces dry mono sound – contrast with the 100_7520Milstein on Capitol from the same era – and is workmanlike at best in its coloring. Celibidache is predictably slow in his tempi and the whole production drags. My father never cared for Brahms, and I recall as a child being told he didn’t care to listen to “funeral dirges” for pleasure. This is why.

Despite their virtuosity, much the same could be said of Szigeti and Szeryng’s records. I focused on the young Szigeti with Ormandy (Columbia 4015) and Szeryng on Mercury with Dorati (90308). Szigeti is unmoving and intellectual 100_7529– a criticism he lived with from his earliest years; Ormandy and Philadelphia , who I usually admire, lack energy or momentum.  Of the old school there is also Otto Spalding, on 1952 mono Remington (199-145). A fine performance, but nothing notable. Intellectual and clean, as with Szigeti, but 100_7528unromantic and rather lacking grace or drama.

For sheer vinyl sonics, the 1961 Oistrakh/Klemperer on HMV (using a first SAX pressing, 2411) is pretty astounding. While the old man’s tempi have slowed, we’re not quite at funeral dirge pacing, and the depth of tones produced from the French National Orchestra is something to behold. I only have a few of these SAXs to compare, but in this case 100_7516I agree with the collecting world’s placing such value on these albums. As for the performance, Oistrakh is efficient and dramatic, if a bit cold. The one record I did not survey here is the Kogan – the crown jewel among record collectors for this work – but I don’t entirely regret it as he’s always struck me as cold and technical in other works. The Russian school of this era was known for that. (My favorite Oistrakh performance is appropriately baroque, Leclair’s Sonata in D. His modern performances, from Shotakovich to Debussy are also superb; somehow the Romantic escaped him.)

I was hoping for some sonic excitement from the Capitol stereo record (7173) with Menuhin and Kempe leading the BPO, given my admiration for the power of Berlin in Brahms. I first put on an HMV mono copy (ALP 1568), then was able to compare to the Capitol stereo. Alas, another disappointment in sound, with almost no difference between the mono and stereo. Menuhin turns in an entirely acceptable performance, but it is clearly not his best fit – and Kempe seems like he just is going through motions. Such a stark contrast, for example, from his stunning 3rd Symphony from 1960 (ASD 406).

Footnote: As a quadraphonic enthusiast, I rather suggest the 1978 EMI Perlman recording with Giulini and Chicago (37286). 100_7513The four channel sound is fantastic, placing one right in the center of the orchestra with a brightly lit, rich violin solo. Perlman is a showman, but a great one. His coloration lacks Milstein’s aristocratic verve and Szigeti’s intellect, but he makes this concerto great fun – hardly the dirge it can become for some. It is available on CD in high remastered form, though the conversion from 4 to 2-channel format causes a good deal of loss in the sound.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

6 responses to “Brahms’ Violin Concerto

  • Todd Ristau

    Your statement about the music of Brahms not being the mid-50’s Philharmonia’s repertoire, astounds me. What of Klemperer’s Brahms cycle, recorded during this time period? Your usual gripes about his slow tempi, do not apply here. Regards, Todd

    • jdr5q

      Todd, maybe you mis-read me? I’m not familiar with the Klemperer ’50s Brahms cycle, and didn’t mean to reference it — but I do know his Beethoven from that period and enjoy it (in part because the tempi are more active). I was just talking about the French Radio recording, which is, to use the German, langsam.

      • Todd Ristau

        Hello. I will quote from the segment of your review which got my dander up. You were referring to the 1954 Martzy/Kletzki recording with the Philharmonia. “This isn’t their repertoire, their Brahms of this era, including the Karajan Brahms recordings, is similarly uninspired.” This was a blanket statement, but if you have not heard any of the Klemperer Brahms cycle, I can understand now why you made it.
        A Brahms Violin Concerto performance you did not cover, and deserves an honorable mention, is the Francescatti/Ormandy from the mid-50s {no stereo exists}. Francescatti usually strikes me as lightweight, but this is often due to the sound he was afforded. I own an English pressed Philips of this recording {Philips ABL 3229}. Beautiful, full, warm violin tone, and Ormandy was very engaged on this day.

        Warm regards, Todd

      • jdr5q

        A fair criticism. I will pursue the Klemperer ’50s Brahms, as I said I do greatly admire the ’50s Beethoven. I was also thinking of the Philharmonia’s 1950s’ cycle with Karajan, which I consider dull — despite my great admiration for the conductor, as you’ve surely picked up. See my latest on Tchaikovsky and feel free to chime in!

      • Todd Ristau

        Hi. If you are serious about exploring the Klemperer/Brahms cycle, avoid the U.S pressed red Angels at all costs. English or Canadian pressed reds are greatly preferable. If you have $600 lying around, there are the British pressed SAX. I agree with you about the Karajan Philharmonia/Brahms cycle; a mere run through compared to K’s later with the Berliners. I’ll check out your latest post soon. Regards, Todd

  • Morris Orens

    I will cut to the chase- heavyweight champ is Szigeti with the Halle/Harty in 1928,an amazing performance that has it all. Second is Szigeti in 1959 with the LSO/Menges on Mercury which has the advantage of Mercury’s best sound. I agree that the Ormandy is very disappointing. I thought Martzy did a very nice job other than the cadenza.
    Which brings me to my confusion. I believe Brahms left it blank for the soloist to provide but the notes to the Milsteins state the cadenza was written by the “composer”,by “Joachim” and by “Milstein”??? I like the Milstein with PSO/Steinberg but the cadenza sounds like the Chaconne! I believe Szigeti does the Joachim and beautifully so. I have no idea what Menuhin was thinking in his HMV mono with Kempe, I’m not sure it’s not distortion I hear. I’ve listened to probably a dozen others and I don’t intend to return to this piece for years. Mo

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