Brahms: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Berg: Violin Concerto. Renaud Capucon, violin; Daniel Harding, Vienna Philharmonic. Virgin Classics 50999 602653 2 6.

The German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his only violin concerto, the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, in 1878. He wrote it around the same time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and they both display a kind of pastoral or bucolic atmosphere. However, it is the slightly later Violin Concerto that is a little more robust and rugged, yet more lofty and aristocratic, almost as rustic as it is rhapsodic, making it something of an opposition of charms.

As Brahms grew up in a period where classicism was giving way to full-blown Romanticism, he sometimes found himself caught between the two competing styles, and we hear this in the Violin Concerto, nicely rendered by French violinist Renaud Capucon, with Daniel Harding and the peerless Vienna Philharmonic in sympathetic support.

Maestro Harding gives Brahms’s orchestral introduction an appropriately long, grand sweep. Then, when Capucon’s violin enters, it continues the Romantic inflection both in its delicate flow and in its bracing individualism. Capucon executes the familiar main theme most lyrically, with a polished, lilting finesse. The soloist and the conductor appear to want to point up the work’s symphonic structure more than usual, which tends to make it all the more grand and imposing. Adding to the gravitas of the occasion, Capucon delivers a sweet yet firm tone that never lingers long on the more sentimental aspects of the score.

The entry of the violin into the central Adagio takes so long it almost makes us forget this is a concerto. However, when Capucon does begin his stint in the lead, he makes the most of Brahms’s poetic writing and provides practically a chamber-style rendering of the music.

All of the players attack the finale with gusto and end the piece in high spirits. I particularly enjoyed the uninhibited brio and vigor Capucon and Harding bring to the music, keeping it cheery and serious at the same time.

The coupling on the disc is the Berg Violin Concerto, written in the last year of his life by twentieth-century Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). The two works, separated by over five decades, make an interesting comparison and contrast, Brahms still rooting around in the past, Berg clearly looking ahead to the future.

In an altogether different musical world from Brahms, Berg worked within a strict twelve-tone structure. Yet possibly because the untimely death of a dear friend--Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler--inspired him to write it, Berg’s music is quite serene, harmonious, and accessible. Capucon and his fellow musicians allow the practically endless stream of melodies to glide forward in a delightfully graceful rendition of the score. All told, this makes a welcome companion piece to the Brahms.

Made by Virgin in 2011 at the ORF RadioKulturhaus, Vienna, Austria, the recording sounds refined and lifelike, enhanced by a lightly resonant acoustic. It’s also rich, smooth, dynamic, and warmly persuasive. The aural picture has a weight commensurate with the music, especially in the Brahms, and a clarity that becomes the Berg. Moreover, the Virgin engineers balance the violin with the rest of the orchestra impeccably, so while the soloist is still front and center, he never overpowers the accompaniment. As important, the violin exhibits a realistically detailed response, neither too bright nor too soft. Enjoyable music and enjoyable sound equal a winning combination.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa