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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77 (1878) [39:33]*
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53 (1883) [33:24]
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Barenboim*
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kurt Masur
Rec. live at Chicago Symphony Hall, Chicago, in October 1997*/ Avery Fisher Hall, New York, in January 1997.
Made in Germany by Warner Music Manufacturing Europe, 2003. DDD
WARNER Elatus 2564 60806-2 [73:22]

Brahms and Dvořák made single contributions to the violin concerto genre. Although time has dealt a more prestigious hand to the former composer’s offering, both works are perennial favourites on the concert circuit.

But there is more than popularity that holds together these concerti: composed only five years apart – in 1878 and 1883 respectively – they were written in consultation with Germany’s leading violinist, Joseph Joachim. Brahms the pianist was loathe to alter his original conception and allowed Joachim no more than the cadenza and various technical recommendations. Dvořák, on the other hand, collaborated closely with his fellow violinist which explains several revisions and a three-year postponement!

This recording is a treat. Maxim Vengerov is captured live under two almighty batons and the performances fulfil all expectation. Distinctly different approaches from Barenboim and Masur cast on the one hand a soft lustre on the Teutonic concerto and on the other a fearsome militancy on its Czech contender – the opposite of what one might expect.

The opening bars of the Brahms set in motion Barenboim’s fluid and expansive vision – even the punchy rhythms cannot rein in the orchestra’s romancing. When soloist Maxim Vengerov penetrates the soundscape with a bold attack, he gladly basks in the limelight. Doubling the effect of Vengerov’s audacity are the inevitable flaws of a live recording that in this instance places greater emphasis on the microphone nearest him.

Vengerov elects his own cadenza which is constructed in the image of earlier improvisatory practices, taking the movement’s themes and motifs as pivotal ideas. Inferior to Joachim’s absolute interpolation but inoffensive and soundly executed.

Brazen virtuosity is matched by the sublime, and this is never more sensitively reached than in the Allegro non troppo [Track 1; 6:40]. The Adagio warmed up with another tenderness – delicate string vibrations embrace a sober wind introduction and then, most poignant of all, the solo violin enters. As the finale confirms, here is a performance that comprehends optimism just as profoundly as it does sadness.

Where Barenboim indulges his sensitive side, Masur takes great pains not to exploit the emotions in Dvořák’s score – such virtuosic music is all too easily made sickly sentimental.

Masur strikes out with a weighty introduction but is matched in vigour and stamina by the resolute soloist – this combative set-up is particularly well accommodated by the live acoustics. The authoritative main motif pervades the Allegro ma non troppo and shines through the texture even when accompanying – the sum of Masur’s attention to thematic detail equals a logical musical narrative that takes on different hues as the score progresses.

The second movement’s real strength lies elsewhere: in its control and beauty. Though there is no lack of power, the calm with which instruments master raw passion – the sheer force of which is realised to its maximum towards the end [8:00] – is intoxicating.

The Finale paints a joviality and boundless optimism tempered by graceful phrasing. Out of the flirtatious pace changes and stylistic variations, Vengerov’s nimble fingers carve out a delightfully carefree panorama. And with the same optimism, this recording ensures that Dvořák plays second fiddle to none.

Aline Nassif


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