For the Love of Brahms (CD review)

Double Concerto; Piano Trio; Schumann: Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell, Music Director and violin; Steven Isserlis, cello; Jeremy Denk, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88985 32179 2. 

So, if Music Director Joshua Bell and producer Adam Abeshouse decided to title the album "For the Love of Brahms," why did they include Schumann's Violin Concerto as the second item on the program? The answer, of course, lies in the friendship and inspiration resulting from an early meeting of the young Brahms with the older Schumann (and his wife Clara). Let it suffice that Brahms found much encouragement from the older composer and his spouse.

Anyway, the first item on the program is the Double Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Brahms wrote it in 1887 as a kind of peace offering for his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had just had a dispute. The work would be Brahms's final composition for orchestra.

The Double Concerto is an odd work, with critics of the day variously describing it as "inapproachable and joyless" on the one hand and as having "vast and sweeping humour" on the other. Certainly, Brahms intended it in good faith and said of it, "I had the jolly idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello. If it succeeds at all, we may well have some fun with it." One thing all critics agreed upon, though, was that it required a pair of distinguished performers on violin and cello, which is what we get in Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis.

One can see from the outset what may have initially divided critics and listeners. The opening movement starts out in a fairly dark mood, the cello contributing heavily. The soloists both contribute to the music equally, the cello sounding appropriately sonorous and the violin aptly sweet. Then, as the work opens up, it gets lighter and brighter, with the Andante appearing warmer and more harmonious than ever and the finale as lively as expected. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, always a welcome treat for me, accompanies the soloists with their usual polish and élan, Bell leading the ensemble with grace and passion. Moreover, because the flexible but essentially chamber-sized ASMF isn't as massive as some larger orchestras, they never overwhelm the soloists but complement them as equivalent partners.

Next we get the second, slow movement of the Violin Concerto in D minor by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a work with an even more erratic history than the Brahms. Schumann wrote the piece in 1853, but because of a series of bizarre events (including spirit voices and Adolph Hitler), it didn't see a premiere until 1937. Here, we find the Langsam (slow, in the sense of slow physical movement and limited forward momentum), one of the loveliest of Schumann's creations. The performance is beautiful, heavenly even.

Joshua Bell
The program ends with Jeremy Denk, piano, Joshua Bell, violin, and Steven Isserlis, cello, playing Brahms's Piano Trio in B major (1854 version), the composer's very first published piece of chamber music. Again, it was Robert and Clara Schumann who inspired the young Brahms to write it. Under the careful guidance of the three soloists, the piece is glowing with good cheer, youthful buoyancy, captivating lyricism, and moody reflection.

Producer, recording engineer, mixer, and editor Adam Abeshouse made the album at Cadogan Hall, London, and DiMenna Center, New York City, in January and May 2016. The sound Abeshouse obtains is quite good, but don't expect it to be too much like that of Philips, Argo, and EMI in their earlier recordings of the Academy. Those recordings were slightly rounder (especially the Philips) and more reverberant than this Sony recording. This time out, the Academy is a slight bit closer yet a slight bit warmer. That doesn't make the newer recording better or worse, only a bit different, and listeners will decide for themselves whether it meets their taste.

For myself, I don't care for live recordings, but I do like recordings that strive to emulate the sound of a real orchestra in a real concert hall, which this one doesn't entirely achieve but comes close enough. The sound has a healthy, natural appeal to it, with a wide stereo stage, a wide frequency response, and a wide dynamic range. While there isn't an overabundance of resonant bloom, there is enough to recreate a pleasantly ambient environment, one that again seems to represent a lifelike venue pretty well. Detailing hasn't the reach-out-and-touch-it clarity of some hi-fi recordings, yet it scores with a remarkably truthful definition, about what one would find of a real-life event. Yes, the recording might have used a tad more sparkle, but maybe that's just me. The piano in the final number seems a touch too big for the other instruments, too, but, again, it's of minor matter. In all, it sounds quite nice, which is the main thing.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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