The Brahms Violin Cocnerto has always been a favorite, though I’d never dug too deeply into the catalog. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 1982 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 French 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. Pittsburgh 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 1960 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 into.
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 orchestral 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 Milstein 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 – 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 unromantic 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 I 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). The 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.