Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878) [39:12]
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 (1878-79) [27:07]
Scherzo WoO2 (1853) [5:25]
Vadim Gluzman (violin)
Angela Yoffe (piano)
Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan
rec. November 2015, Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Switzerland (concerto) and July 2015, Sendesaal Bremen, Germany.
BIS BIS-2172 SACD [72:48]
Vadim Gluzman has produced some very fine recordings for the BIS label in recent years, including a collection of works by Max Bruch including the ubiquitous Violin Concerto Op. 26 (review), Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Bernstein and Bloch (review). I also enjoyed his Prokofiev Sonatas together with Angela Yoffe (review). This Brahms pairing brings together two works composed at his summer retreat in Wörthersee, and their lyrical and sunny disposition reflects both this environment and the fruitful collaboration the composer was enjoying with violinist Joseph Joachim.
With safe pairs of hands such as these one would expect this to be a highly rewarding release, and this turns out to be exactly the case. Conductor and soloist are unified in allowing Brahms’ Violin Concerto to breathe without stagnating, delivering dramatic points with impressive emphasis but resting with empathy on passages of great beauty – portraying landscape and those spaces of the imagination without micro-managing the score with unnecessary rubato. The first movement is gorgeous from the outset, with rich orchestral sound and a relaxed virtuosity that allows the music to unfold its narrative in a supremely natural fashion. Timings are fairly broad but uncontroversial, and for instance as close as makes no difference to Janine Jansen in her Decca recording with Antonio Pappano (review). This has in general a more ‘symphonic’ feel than Gluzman/Gaffigan, still offering spacious lyricism, but to my ears less effective in integrating solo part with orchestral textures in the non-melodic writing at transitions. This is of the great strengths of this BIS recording, with the solo part entirely clear but not really that much closer than the orchestra - the balance not afraid to let the solo part become part of the ‘heft’ of the whole where Brahms intends such interaction. Without wanting to gloss over detail, the Adagio is indeed a place of “magical realms” as Horst A. Scholz describes it in his booklet note, the finale with a nicely observed ‘halting’ rhythm in its Hungarian character, and a suitably rousing conclusion.
There are too many comparisons with Brahms’ Violin Concerto to list, but I brought out Julia Fischer on Pentatone (review), whose solo playing has a sublime sweetness of tone and plenty of elegant musicianship. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra has less character than the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra however – that or the more distant recorded perspective does them a disservice. There are classic recordings such as Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA will always keep their power, though they too can be perceived to have their flaws (review). Gluzman’s tone and vibrato are not a million miles away from Heifetz, projecting expressive power with, in this case, a more glossy set of upper harmonics in the sound. Gluzman plays here on a Stradivarius instrument from 1690, the ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ for those interested in such things. It certainly sounds good to me.
After the noise of the finale to the concerto, the wonderful opening to Brahms’ Sonata in G major for violin and piano, Op 78 is like an escape into a cooling-down room after a session at the gym. Passions soon build up however, and while this again is fundamentally a lyrical work Brahms is never content to rest on his material for long, his virtuoso creativity delivering much more than the “little sonata” that was his introduction for the piece when writing to Joachim.
Comparisons there are once again aplenty, but an old favourite of mine has been Itzhak Perlman with Vladimir Ashkenazy originally on EMI, now Warner Classics (review), though listening to this once again shows where the BIS engineers have made the more satisfactory choice of balancing violin and piano more as equal partners, where Perlman’s sound can almost overshadow Ashkenazy’s at times. I still love Perlman’s sense of narrative in the violin part, a performance with plenty of ‘soul’ if you like. Gluzman is less heart-on-sleeve, but is never less than highly involving. The initial violin entry in the Adagio is wonderful for instance, and the shaping of each phrase and point of dynamic contrast between the duo is terrific throughout.
The Scherzo added as a filler was Brahms’ contribution to the so-called F-A-E Sonata composed together with Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich as a welcome to Joachim on his guest appearance in Düsseldorf in October 1853. This is a surprisingly weighty scherzo, with plenty of intensity, a lovely central section and a grandioso coda in “an affectionate and ironic tribute to one of the century’s foremost violinists.”
With imaginative programming, superb musicianship and BIS’s usual very fine recording standard this is very much a ‘what’s not to like’ release and easy to recommend. I especially appreciate the respectful balance between solo and other instruments which creates more of a concert-hall feel rather than a more artificial studio set-up.