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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77 [38:08]
Double Concerto in A minor Op.102 [31:37]
Yuzuko Horigome (violin); Viviane Spanoghe (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 27-28 August 2013, Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague.
TALENT DOM 291099 [70:24]

These two soloists were new to me, though they seem to have made a number of discs for the Belgium-based Talent Records, including the Brahms sonatas for their respective instruments. So it was perhaps a natural next step to pair them for the Brahms Double Concerto. To include the Brahms Violin Concerto, ask JoAnn Falletta to conduct, and ask all three women to Prague to record with the Czech Philharmonic in its own hall, was all to the good. The result is a successful issue of what has become a popular and logical CD coupling – Japanese violinist, Belgian cellist, American conductor and Czech players all serve the music of the great North German extremely well. I don’t know what language they used in rehearsal, but they certainly all speak fluent Brahms.

The disc opens with Op. 77, and thus with the greatest single movement ever written for solo violin and orchestra; no arguments please, though I accept that Elgar’s opening movement got close thirty years later. Falletta’s steady tempo is just right, and the opening on unison violas, cellos, bassoons and horns – what a glowing Brahmsian combination – suitably sonorous in the Rudolfinum’s tricky acoustic. Horigome’s commanding solo entry instantly gives confidence that we are in good hands, and so it proves throughout, a couple of moments of off-centre intonation merely part of the passionate attack she brings to the big moments. There is an unaffected naturalness to her phrasing, and no undue slowing down for the lyrical highpoints. In this she is well served by Falletta, who is more than a mere accompanist, and keeps the music moving forward and even brings a sweeping epic quality at times. On this evidence the current vintage of Czech Philharmonic players is a very impressive group. The oboe-led wind choir are enchanting in the long opening melody of the adagio, and there is plenty of Hungarian fire in the finale – allegro giocoso indeed. Hanslick once observed that “Brahms cannot exult”. Did he know this movement, or the finale of the Second Symphony?

The abrupt opening phrase of the Double Concerto is strikingly imperious, aided by the spacious headroom of the acoustic, that extra reverberation briefly invading and colouring the pauses. The cellist Viviane Spanoghe proves an ideal partner, matching Horigome’s virtuosity in those passages where the two soloists challenge each other in dexterity. Her warm cello tone is very appealing in her solos and she blends well when required. The andante has the right mixture of passion and power, and again is kept moving along. The finale has snappy high-stepping rhythms from Falletta, and there is more fine wind detail from her players, a feature of the disc throughout.

Overall the interpretations of both concertos here are broadly traditional without being merely conventional. Some favourite details of the score might go missing, but then there are new insights too, suggesting soloists and conductor did not take long familiar joint interpretations into the recording process, but took a fresh look at these works.

The recording is quite good enough, if hardly 2015’s state-of-the art. There is plenty of orchestral detail, and the soloists are balanced more in a concert hall relationship to the orchestra, rather than given the spotlit close-up of an earlier age. Anyone familiar with Supraphon’s orchestral discs made in this hall will know what to expect – a combination of roomy resonance with a slight hardness and congestion in tuttis. At least it all sounds natural, placing real musicians in a real space.

There is plenty of current competition in this coupling, including three from DG; Mutter/Meneses/Karajan from the 1980s, Shaham/Wang/Abbado from 2002, and Repin/Mörk/Chailly from 2007. Also from 2007 there is the Pentatone SACD from Fischer/Müller-Schott/Kreizberg, but our MWI critic took severely against the violinist’s approach. That one and the Chailly have the finest sound however. Also worth considering is the Teldec 1997 coupling from Kremer/Hagen/Harnoncourt. On the other hand you could follow Rob Barnett way back to the 1970s and Stern/Rose/Ormandy on Sony – great performances of both works, though you will have to share Rob’s delight in the recording aesthetic of that era. Also in the grandest performance tradition are the famous 1970 EMI versions from Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Szell. A 2012 SACD re-mastering of that added the Richter/Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Karajan Beethoven triple concerto, though without greatly improving the sound. Still older versions resurface from time to time in this coupling – Heifetz and Piatigorsky is still on RCA, and Heifetz and Feuermann from the 1930s once appeared on Biddulph – that really did get you closer to the Joachim era and its performance style. If you don’t need to couple the concertos on one CD, then the choice becomes vast, especially in the solo concerto.

This version, if not quite recalling the legends named above, at the very least can take its place as a satisfying recording of these great works, and with something fresh to say about them both.

Roy Westbrook