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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D, op.77 (cadenza by Heifetz) (1), Concerto for Violin and Cello in a, op.102 (2)
Jascha Heifetz (violin, 1, 2), Gregor Piatigorsky (violoncello, 2), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (1), RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Alfred Wallenstein (2)
Dates and locations not given (op.102 recorded in 1960)
BMG CLASSICS/RCA RED SEAL 82876 59410 2 [63:39]

I find it rather difficult to write about this performance of the violin concerto. Heifetz, after all, was one of the supreme violinists of the 20th Century Ė and of course I am not going to claim that the playing as such shows anything but total mastery. Furthermore, though he was born in an age when fiddle-players could be extremely mannered with their schmaltz and their portamenti, he established a cleanly classical style that should be just right for Brahms. Fritz Reiner, too, was the conductor of versions of this composerís 3rd and 4th symphonies that still stand as leading recommendations, so his Brahmsian credentials are not in doubt.

And more: there has been a tendency of late for performances of this concertoís first movement to get very slow and frankly lugubrious, so in principle I am all for a performance that treats an Allegro as an Allegro, even when Brahms has added his customary "non troppo".

Unfortunately, the performance did not turn out to be the treat I was expecting, though I enjoyed it more the second time round. The trouble is, I am not convinced the great violinist and the great conductor really agreed with one another. Warning signs, if slight, are there from the beginning since Reiner shows a certain tendency to broaden out at key moments. Not very much, but just enough to give the idea that he really feels the music a notch slower. And then Heifetz, when he comes in, often (and this is more noticeable) moves ahead impatiently as if his desired tempo is faster still. Both artists, too, seem disinclined to indulge in that capacity which usually came so easily to their generation, of finding expressive elbow-room even within a basically swift tempo. The result was that in spite of much refreshing vitality, many well-loved corners of this work seemed to have their expressive life squeezed out of them.

This disconcerting experience continued in the second movement. Here Heifetz does seem to want to shape the music lyrically and romantically, even in the context of a fastish tempo, but now itís Reinerís turn to be out of sorts. One can almost hear him muttering grumpily "If he wants a fast tempo he can bloody well have one", and he simply refuses the violinist the leeway he seems to be asking for.

In the finale they do seem to agree, but unfortunately what they agree on is that Brahms was as capable as Paganini of writing a brilliant, emptily virtuosic finale. Itís certainly exciting, but so many of Heifetzís colleagues, Menuhin (with both Furtwängler and Kempe) and Oistrakh (with Klemperer) not least among them, have apparently believed that this music has spiritual qualities too Ė and for most listeners they have carried their point.

However, as I say, on a second hearing, while I remained aware of the points above, I was much more ready to be simply swept away by the general vitality and sweep of it all. Perhaps my negative reactions had become enlarged in my mind in the intervening few days, with the result that they now seemed exaggerated. All the same, I was still somewhat unnerved by the experience, and was still hesitating to write about it when the Takezawa/Colin Davis version (part of an all-Brahms 5-CD set on which I will be reporting duly) hit my doormat. Just look at the difference in the timings:

Hefetz/Reiner: 18:54 08:16 07:19

Takezawa/Davis 24:43 10:13 08:19

Now, nearly 6 minutes would be an incredible difference in an entire opera, let alone a single movement of a violin concerto. Was the Takezawa/Davis going to be one of those lugubrious modern versions? No; the interesting thing is that it takes a perfectly "normal" tempi for the first movement, broad but certainly not stagnant (so how ever long do the really slow ones last?). Though you canít judge a performance just on timings, they surely tell us something, and Iím afraid Heifetz and Reinerís Brahms will have to be left for people whose hearts beat faster than mine. These two artists, by the way, collaborated on disc only twice (the other was the Tchaikovsky concerto), so perhaps they really didnít hit it off.

However, if you decide to get this as an occasional corrective to more indulgent performances, you will be getting a very fine version of the double concerto.

Oddly enough, one of the first professional orchestral concerts I ever attended, by the Royal Philharmonic in Folkestone, Kent, was conducted by Alfred Wallenstein (1898-1983) Ė I later came to know that this was one of his very few British appearances. My principal impression, at that tender age, was of how extraordinarily shiny the conductorís shoes were (no British conductor wore them that shiny), but I also have certain memories of calm but authoritative gestures that resulted in a performance of the "New World" symphony that my music teacher felt to be the finest she had ever heard. First impressions are often abiding, and maybe the name of Wallenstein has had for this reason an "important" ring for me that it by and large doesnít have on my side of the Atlantic, where he is just a name who accompanied decently enough any number of recordings by Heifetz and Rubinstein. I wonder if his name is more "important" for American music-lovers; he was after all conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 13 seasons (1943-1956). His recording with them of Rachmaninovís Second Symphony used to be a staple of the early Music for Pleasure catalogue, but that was in the days when the score was always presented in a cut form, which would be a limiting factor today. Perhaps there are other LAPO/Wallenstein recordings worth investigating?

Wallenstein took to opera conducting late in his career, yet the striking thing about this Brahms is his ability to mediate between the egos of his prima donna soloists while ultimately controlling the overall shape of the performance just as an opera conductor does. His opening tutti is fiery and forward moving, yet he also finds that Brahmsian amplitude that escapes Reiner. When Piatigorsky comes in it can be heard that he is basically a more romantically-inclined artist than Heifetz. There are details where the same music is differently phrased by the two soloists, and Heifetz sometimes shows a fidgety disposition to move ahead, but with Wallensteinís help the performance remains on even keel and is greater than the sum of its parts. The Andante is more swift and passionate than reposeful, and I shanít be throwing out my much-loved Suk/Navarra/Ančerl, but I shall keep this alongside it for when I want to hear a passionate rather than a reflective performance.

The recordings are fair for their date though there is a touch of distortion in the orchestral tuttis. The liner notes by Richard Freed are brief but do not waste space Ė they contain much useful information. In common with other issues in this series, recording details are not given.

Christopher Howell

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