The piano was Johannes Brahms’ instrument of choice, and it’s clear from his many compositions featuring the piano that he knew the instrument inside out. But when it came time to compose a violin concerto Brahms found it necessary to ask his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, for advice on technical matters. It is also clear that Brahms was more concerned with musical matters than with technical limitations, so much so that even one of his loyal advocates said that Brahms had not written a concerto “for” the violin, but “against it.”
Martin Bookspan writes that the Brahms D major Violin Concerto “is one of the ultimate tests of the musical scope and vision of its performers.” Bookspan recommends David Oistrakh’s recorded performance as “a probing, deeply felt one. For sheer perfection and brilliance he turns to the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz.
Even though it’s now two decades old I still find Joshua Bell’s recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto a compelling performance. It now comes reissued as part of a “three CDs for the price of one” collection that also features Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto plus chamber music gems from several composers. Hilary Hahn’s stunning performance of the Brahms is creatively coupled with Stravinsky’s D major Violin Concerto, a neoclassical masterpiece.
The Double Concerto in A minor for violin, cello and orchestra was the last orchestral work by Brahms. Despite the fact that it was composed nearly ten years after the D major Violin Concerto he still felt some reservations about writing for the instrument, admitting in a letter that he ought to have handed on the idea to someone “who knows the violin better than I do.”
Two brilliant soloists are required, and Bookspan calls the recorded version with Zino Francescatti and Pierre Fournier “extremely winning.” Of the more recent recordings, the Capuçon brothers turn in an outstanding performance that also features a unique coupling: a beautiful interpretation of the Brahms clarinet quintet.
If Brahms is the obverse side of the coin, Anton Bruckner is the reverse. The Viennese adored Brahms; initially, they all but hated Bruckner. A simple, naïve and devoutly religious man, Bruckner was in his sixties when he was finally accorded the recognition he had toiled in isolation to achieve. When his Seventh Symphony received its Vienna premiere an enthusiastic audience gave Bruckner several ovations after each movement was played!
Bookspan favors Bruno Walter’s 1961 recording of the Bruckner Seventh made in Hollywood with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink’s 1965 version of Bruckner’s Ninth is also recommended by Bookspan. Now in his eighties, Haitink is still turning out great recordings of Bruckner’s symphonies in stunning, live performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Seventh Symphony) and with the London Symphony Orchestra (Ninth Symphony).
PURCHASE THE RECORDINGS
The February 2014 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features the four symphonies by Brahms and his two majestic piano concertos.
The January 2014 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features two works by Berlioz, a tuneful symphony by Bizet and an incredible chamber piece by Beethoven.
The December 2013 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features several concertos by Beethoven and a popular piano sonata.