The 1879 premiere of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 elicited, as seemed so often the case with Brahms, a range of comments encompassing both praise and faint damnation. Ironically, in view of the subject of this review, one of those comments was from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose own violin concerto had been completed the year before but would not be premiered until two years later. He called the introduction “an admirable pedestal for a statue . . . but the statue is not there; we merely get a second pedestal placed on the first.” Brahms himself seemed to be rather sanguine about the whole thing. His comment was that “Joachim (the great violinist to whom the concerto was dedicated) is quite keen on playing the concerto, so it may come off after all.”
Whether it came off or not, it has become a concert hall staple, and for good reason. It is, indisputably, Brahms. It has that particularly Brahmsian bigness to it, the sense that, whatever Brahms wrote, it was written with a full orchestra in mind. Inside those broad architectural lines, however, are shining details, including Heifetz’ own cadenza. For me, of course, there are two benchmarks for Brahms: the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and the great Piano Concerto in D Minor. I don’t really consider the Violin Concerto to share the rarified heights that those two works occupy, but it does have its moments: there are passages, as always in Brahms, of surpassing sweetness that contrast strongly with the full-orchestra passages that embody that Olympian grandeur that says, without doubt, “Brahms.” Heifetz does full justice to the intricacy and detail that sometime are lost in interpretations of Brahms, while Reiner and the CSO not only offer full and sensitive support to the soloist, but take the orchestral sections and run with them. The second movement, in particular, I found rewarding, which is rare for me – I generally gloss over Brahms’ slow movements, but Heifetz and the CSO manage to bring a degree of tension to this section that is all too rare and very, very welcome – and they do it without losing any of the sweetness. The beginning of the final movement has a great deal of sparkle and bounce, Brahms in high relief, that develops a strong momentum that pauses for the solo interludes and then continues full bore. (Although I have to point out that there is a bit of a lurch just before the final chords that has always disturbed me. That seems to be a habit with Brahms, as though he were taking a deep breath before the finale.)
The reason that Tchaikovsky’s concerto was not premiered for three years after its completion is simple: Leopold Auer, the most noted virtuoso of the time, for whom it was written, refused to attempt it. It was, in his view, unplayable. (There is more than a little irony in this history: it was Auer who introduced the concerto, by then considered one of the absolute masterpieces in the literature, to a young prodigy, his student Jascha Heifetz.)
Well, Auer was wrong. Fiendishly difficult, yes, and one of the ways we measure violinists, but not, ultimately unplayable. Tchaikovsky’s concerto is indisputably one of the two or three greatest orchestral work for violin in the nineteenth-century canon. And of course, it is pure Tchaikovsky: melodic, marked by those passages of melancholy without which it simply couldn’t be Russian, with all the orchestral color one could hope for. One thing that’s very attractive about this recording is that Heifetz and Reiner do not indulge the tendency to cloying sweetness that is so common in interpretations of Tchaikovsky (who, I think, was really a much more substantial composer than he is usually credited with). Heifetz’ precision and clarity on this one are remarkable. As Charles O’Connell noted, the purpose of this concerto was to “exploit – in and against a setting of voluptuous orchestral splendor – the ultimate tonal and technical resources of the violin.” As he concludes, it succeeds, and Heifetz and the CSO succeed as well. There is a huge amount of excitement in this interpretation, even above what we expect from renditions of Tchaikovsky – and they don’t miss the subtleties.
As has become habitual with this series from Sony, there is not much to be said about the performances that can be said in less than superlatives: two of the great orchestral works for the violin by two of Europe’s greatest composers of the nineteenth century, performed by one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century with an orchestra and conductor who have, perhaps, been equaled but arguably never surpassed, at least at the time these recordings were made. (Orchestras, like all living things, have their ups and downs; the period under Fritz Reiner was, for the Chicago Symphony, definitely an up.) Some commentators have objected to the tempi, which they regard as much too fast (laying the blame, for some reason, on Heifetz), with the observation that these are works from the romantic canon, as though that were an indication for languor and a degree of saccharinity. Frankly, I find the treatment here perfectly appropriate; I think that to slow these works down would steal some of the life from them.
This one is a strong candidate for the basic library of great orchestral music. I came to this release with some reservations, simply because the violin is not one of my favored solo instruments (which is a rather damning admission for a classical music fan, but there you have it). Heifetz, Reiner, and the CSO won me over.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (org. RCA Red Seal), 2005)