Brahms: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto. Henryk Szeryng, violin; Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. Newton Classics 8802053.

Here are two oldies but goodies, the Brahms and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos with violinist Henryk Szeryng, conductor Bernard Haitink, and the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra, both recordings dating from the mid Seventies and newly reissued by our friends at Newton Classics.

The disc begins with the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Brahms's only violin concerto, written in 1878. Brahms composed the piece at around the same time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and both of them promote a kind of bucolic idyll. However, the slightly later Violin Concerto is the more robust, rugged work, lofty and aristocratic as well as rustic and rhapsodic.

As Brahms was a classicist as well as a Romanticist, Szeryng and Haitink play the Concerto that way. It's still a virtuosic piece of music, yet the musicians never over romanticize it in any way, letting it breath with long, flowing, rhythmic tempos. Then, when Szeryng's instrument takes flight, it does so eloquently rather than sentimentally or frantically. You'll find no wistful nostalgia or bravura showboating here, just direct yet passionate playing. In the Adagio, Szeryng's violin joins the oboe seamlessly on their sweet, lyrical journey; then in the finale, everyone contributes equally to the exhilaration of the moment.

While the interpretation may not provide the esoteric musings or the adrenaline rush of some rival versions, Szeryng and Haitink leave one with the felling of having heard a tightly knit and well-integrated piece of music, wholly satisfying. This Brahms recording has long been one of my favorites, elegant yet bold, poetic yet vigorous, so it delights me that Newton Classics chose it for rerelease.

Coupled with the Brahms is the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). It was not the first such concerto Mendelssohn wrote, having composed two others while in his teens before writing this one in 1844. However, he never published the earlier works, so this is the one we all hear, the one that's so famous. (I know there are recordings of the early violin concertos, but that's not the point.) I suppose we can thank Mendelssohn's friend, violinist Ferdinand David, for prompting the composer over the years to write the thing at all. After years of pestering, Mendelssohn completed it and David premiered it in Leipzig in 1845 to an audience that appreciated it in the extreme. Folks have loved it ever since.

Although I hate even to use the term "old-fashioned" to describe Szeryng and Haitink's collaboration in the Mendelssohn because it tends to conjure up the wrong image in some minds, it is still the best way to characterize the performance. Yes, the sound of the violin and orchestra are rich and resonant and ravishing, yet the interpretation itself is somewhat straightforward and unadorned. It is never ordinary, mind you, and is sometimes quite impassioned, but it sounds just a touch less inspired than a few competing versions like those of Itzhak Perlman and Andre Previn (EMI) or Jascha Heifetz and Charles Munch (RCA). So Szeryng remains recommendable, though not at the very top of the list.

The sound in both works is typical of what Philips was doing with the Concertgebouw in the late Sixties and Seventies. These recordings, made in 1974 (Brahms) and 1977 (Mendelssohn) feature a big, spacious, concert-hall acoustic, with a wonderful ambient bloom that makes them sound most realistic. They also display a fine midrange clarity, a wide dynamic range, and at least adequate if not quite exemplary high treble and deep bass. If there is any minor issue, it is that the upper midrange and lower treble can be a bit more forward in the Brahms than one may like, which is fine for the solo violin, giving it an extra sheen, but makes massed strings seem a bit overbright. Nevertheless, it's a small matter when the rest of the sonics are so persuasive.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa