RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77* (1878) [41:14]
21 Hungarian Dances WoO 1 (1868 and 1880) (arr. Joseph JOACHIM)** [52:58]
Baiba Skride (violin);
Lauma Skride (piano) **
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo*
rec. live, 29 January 2009, Stockholm Concert Hall; 7-9 November 2010, August-Everding-Saal, Grünwald
ORFEO C 829 112 A [41:14 + 52:58]
I don’t believe I’ve previously heard the Latvian violinist, Baiba Skride but she has a strong pedigree, not least as the winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2001. I see she’s garnered praise on MusicWeb International already. Mark Berry reviewed her favourably for Seen and Heard in Brahms – the Double Concerto – at the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival. Evan Dickerson enthused about her disc of solo violin pieces in 2005 and was even more impressed shortly afterwards by a disc pairing concertos by Shostakovich and Janáček. Summing up that disc, he wrote: “She is a serious artist no question, and whilst some artists politely ask their audiences to listen Baiba Skride demands their total attention.” On the evidence of these new Brahms recordings I’d agree with Evan’s view.
Besides the concerto performance, to which I’ll come in a moment, Miss Skride offers all twenty-one of the Hungarian Dances in the arrangement for violin and piano made by Joachim. I must confess that these pieces aren’t among those I’d call indispensable Brahms. However, their inclusion here is intelligent, not least on account of Joachim’s connection with the concerto. Also, it has to be said that Joachim’s arrangements work very well indeed, especially since the violin can suggest so strongly the Central European gypsy fiddling tradition. In the very interesting interview with the Skride sisters that serves as the notes, Baiba comments that the violin part in Joachim’s arrangements “is written in a very un-violinistic manner”. However, she seems completely at home with the music, despite all the technical challenges.
For these performances Baiba Skride is accompanied by her sister, Lauma and the siblings make a strong and effective partnership – I believe they regularly play chamber music together. A positive impression is made from the outset by Baiba Skride’s strong, deep tone at the start of the very first dance, in G minor. The fifth dance, in the same key, is fiery and spiky and in the following dance, in B major, both musicians display real dash. In this dance also the little hesitations and the speed changes are all negotiated very well. There’s more dash – and a touch of devilment – in the twelfth dance, in D minor while both numbers 14, in D minor, and 16, in G minor once again, are ardently delivered. In the eighteenth dance, in D major, I particularly got the feeling that the sisters were having fun – as I’m sure is the case throughout the set; it’s just that the impression is strongest of all in this number. The final dance, in E minor, provides a vivacious finale.
These are slight pieces but if they’re played, as they are here, with spirit, enjoyment and skill the dances provide lots of entertainment. This is a collection into which to dip, rather like a bag of sweets, to extract a few choice morsels at a time.
The Violin Concerto is much more substantial fare and Baiba Skride’s account of it is an impressive one. In her sister she had a fine and sympathetic partner for the Hungarian Dances and she’s equally fortunate in Sakari Oramo as the conductor for the concerto – she comments in the booklet how it helped that Oramo himself is a violinist.
The first movement is spaciously conceived. In this performance it lasts for 23:49, which was about the longest that I could readily find in my collection. By contrast, in Nathan Milstein’s aristocratic recording with Steinberg (EMI, 1953/4) this movement occupies 19:36, without sounding rushed and Jascha Heifetz with Reiner (RCA) gets through it a mere 18:52 – but I find his laser-like approach rather too brisk and unyielding. I did some more detailed comparisons with the David Oistrakh/George Szell recording (EMI, 1969) and, perhaps more relevantly, with that by another female virtuoso, Ginette Neveu (with Issay Dobrowen, EMI, 1946). The Neveu comparison is particularly interesting because the ages at which these two players recorded the concerto are not too dissimilar: Miss Skride was born in 1981 while Ginette Neveu was a matter of days past her 27th birthday when she set down her famous recording of the Brahms concerto.
As I said, the first movement is spacious in this new recording: perhaps the performers take more expressive risks than they would have done in the studio. Sakari Oramo shapes the long orchestral introduction sensitively and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic plays very well. Miss Skride’s first entry (2:44) is strongly projected, though the sparks don’t fly off her bow in the way that one has heard in some other performances. Neveu is fiery at this point while Oistrakh really digs in, producing a big, gutsy sound. In passing, it was some time since I’d listened to this much-admired recording. Hearing it alongside performances by two female virtuosi really pointed up what a masculine performance it is. I only got to see the booklet after I’d listened to the concerto several times and had drafted my review. I was interested but, on reflection, not surprised to read Baiba Skride extolling the beauties of Brahms’s music. At one point she says “I find that Brahms, despite all his power and weightiness, is also very romantic. Personally, I sometimes find him very delicate, you could almost say: very feminine” [my italics]. I think she brings out that feminine element that she evidently finds in the concerto very successfully – and very naturally. It’s a refreshing approach.
It’s soon clear that Baiba Skride is going to give an intensely poetic, singing account of the solo part. Her technique sounds flawless – as one would expect at this level – but I really admired the consistency of her tone, especially above the stave, as well as her ability to sustain the line. At 4:27, when the soloist muses on the melody with which the oboe responded to the first theme at the start of the concerto, Miss Skride’s playing is beautifully relaxed – and how well she and Oramo prepare for that moment; she sings this episode as sweetly as does Ginette Neveu. It’s not all sweetness, though; there’s ample fire and excitement in the passage between 11:36 and 13:10, for instance. The treatment of the Joachim cadenza (from 18:13) is surprisingly thoughtful for quite a bit of its duration – Oistrakh’s performance is far stronger and more obviously flamboyant – but Miss Skride provides display where necessary. The passage leading out of the cadenza, where the orchestra rejoins the soloist, is, in Skride’s hands, as sustained and beautiful as I can recall hearing it. Here the soloist is rapt, ethereal and dreamy whereas Ginette Neveu sounds much more intense.
The slow movement, introduced by a distinguished rendition of the wonderful oboe solo, is a gift for a player with Baiba Skride’s lyrical talent. Her glorious, singing tone is heard to wonderful advantage in these pages. In fact, everyone involved in this performance – soloist, conductor and orchestra – bring great sensitivity to the movement. Ginette Neveu’s violin also sings beautifully but she plays with a greater intensity. Some may prefer that but Miss Skride’s unforced lyricism brings its own rewards.
The finale is taken at a reasonably steady pace – it lasts 8:08 in this reading, whereas Oistrakh’s much weightier reading clocks in at 8:33 and Neveu requires 7:44. However, even if the basic pulse is fairly steady there’s no lack of joy in the playing and the music has life. I did wonder if Miss Skride could have let herself go just a bit more – and her conductor too; perhaps the performance lacks the last degree of exuberance. But it’s still a highly enjoyable reading and there’s good energy in the final 6/8 pages. I think there’s perhaps more of the gypsy in the way that Ginette Neveu delivers this finale and that’s appropriate, I feel. By the side of these two young ladies, David Oistrakh is much more deliberate and heavy-toned. To be truthful, his performance sounds ponderous by comparison.
Baiba Skride’s reading of the Brahms concerto may not be to all tastes. I can imagine some listeners thinking that her expansive way with the first movement is just a bit too much of a good thing. However, the concerto is a work of almost inexhaustible richness and the music can accommodate a variety of approaches. The sheer beauty of tone and the long, seamless lines that are a feature of Miss Skride’s performance, especially in the first two movements, are captivating and this winningly lyrical account of one of the handful of truly great violin concertos is worth serious consideration by collectors.
The recorded sound in the Hungarian Dances and in the concerto is very good. The discs are handsomely packaged and the very useful booklet is in German, English and French.
This winningly lyrical account of the Brahms Violin Concerto is worth serious consideration by collectors.