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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 (1878) [40.26]
Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. (1869: 1–10; 1881:11–21) [31.37].
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Joseph Swensen (violin)
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7-9 July 2003. DDD. SACD
LINN RECORDS CKD 224 [72’16"]

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Having experienced Joseph Swensen live both as conductor and soloist, this disc came as a major disappointment to me, certainly based upon the aural evidence of the Violin Concerto. The selection of Hungarian Dances goes some way to rectifying the position, but most collectors will be buying this disc for the concerto.

Although, according to the sleeve, Swensen uses a Stradivarius, I have never heard such harsh and jerky playing. This disfigures the concerto, one of the glories of the romantic repertoire. It is as though Swensen is trying to play in a period style, except that such players at least manage to make the sound of their instrument tolerable. The orchestral tutti starting the work is superb, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra continuing from Mackerras’s Telarc recording of the four symphonies. One need have no reservations about the size of the orchestra in these works, some fifty strong. Unfortunately, it is only once the violin solo starts that the performance goes downhill.

Any number of other modern performances of this work are preferable, and it is a great disappointment to me not to be able to give this disc a warmer welcome. I cannot fault Linn’s capturing of the sound of the Usher Hall, not a particularly forgiving acoustic, but here, sounding very good. In addition the SACD delivers a clear sound picture of the hall, again without being spectacularly hi-fi. It is a natural concert hall acoustic, which is fine.

When the orchestra is engaged to play a selection of the Hungarian Dances, orchestrated by Brahms and other composers, we get just over half of them. In retrospect it may have been a better idea to concentrate on all of the dances, except that I am not sure that there is a mass market for such a disc.

You may not feel as strongly as I do about the violin playing, and so before buying I suggest you try the following passages before purchase.

First movement:- 2’47" and following.

Second Movement:- 3’40" and following.

Last Movement:- 3’45" and following.

Both soloist and producer must surely have approved this issue. My reaction to it is of course purely personal, but I must report as I find, supported by evidence, for you to check as you see fit.

My experience with SACD releases this month has not been particularly successful, given annoyingly short playing times (Philips Gergiev Tchaikovsky 4th), and now this flawed version of the Brahms Violin Concerto. With releases like this the industry is doing favours neither to themselves nor to us.

John Phillips

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