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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878) [39:14]
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, in A minor, Op. 102 (1887) [33:05]
Tianwa Yang (Violin)
Gabriel Schwabe (Cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Antoni Wit
rec. 2017, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany
NAXOS 8.573772 [72:25]

Both of these works are regularly performed and recorded, but judging by catalogue listings, one sees that of the four concertos Brahms composed, the Violin Concerto is the most popular and the Double Concerto the least by far. While the Violin Concerto is generally regarded as the greater masterpiece, part of the Double Concerto’s lagging status is simply due to the impediment that two talented soloists are needed for a performance or recording, while his other three concertos need but one. Here we have the two talented soloists and they produce a recording that will surely add positively to their lengthening and impressive resumes.

Tianwa Yang has arguably become recognized as one of the leading violinists of the younger generation along with Julia Fischer, Arabella Steinbacher, Vilde Frang, Ray Chen and perhaps a few others. In the Double Concerto she is joined by Berlin-born Gabriel Schwabe, a rising star who could well become Yang’s counterpart among young cellists. They are abetted here by the esteemed maestro Antoni Wit and the excellent Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.

In the Violin Concerto Yang plays with a great sense for balancing the dramatic and profound against the warm and Romantic sides of Brahms. We don’t usually think of Brahms as a heart-on-sleeve Romantic, especially in the way Tchaikovsky is. But many of Brahms’ works can be interpreted in that manner to one degree or other, notably the Violin Concerto. Yet, this work also has a tough, if not abrasive side too, which Yang highlights with great drama on her first movement entry, cutting through the notes with vehemence and thrust. She then relaxes into a more songful manner for the lyrical music, her tone lovely, the vibrato natural and never overly prominent, and her dynamics subtly applied. In the ravishing third of the principal themes (starting at 6:41—where string accompaniment employs pizzicato arpeggios), Yang delivers a passionate account, wisely avoiding the temptation of playing it at a slower tempo, which some violinists favor. The exchanges and interweaving passages with the orchestra that follow are sensitively phrased by both soloist and orchestra. She delivers the Joachim cadenza with the right mixture of fire and reflection. Her tempos in the opening panel and throughout the concerto tend to be in the moderate range, and always seem to fit her well thought out scheme.

The second movement is quite lovely, both the oboist and Yang delivering fine renditions of the main theme. The restive character of the middle section comes on with nice contrast and the remainder of the movement is simply gorgeous. The rondo finale begins with the appropriate vigor and spirit from both soloist and orchestra. Yang negotiates the ensuing arching triplet arpeggios cleanly and impressively. As the movement proceeds the celebratory character of the music takes on more color and develops a grand sense of triumph. Yang never falters: she builds confidently toward the all-conquering conclusion. An excellent performance! Of course, we must credit Antoni Wit and the DSO Berlin for their masterly contribution in this collaboration.

In the Double Concerto Gabriel Schwabe makes a fine partner for Yang, the two uniting as if of a single mind in their approach: they fully capture both the grittier and Romantic sides of the work, infusing the music’s drama with sinew and thrust and contrasting it with meltingly warm phrasing in lyrical passages. To sample the latter quality, try the lovely second movement where Schwabe leads off with a rather direct, sparingly inflected rendering of the main theme, the notes flowing so naturally. Yang of course joins in exhibiting much the same kind of straightforward spirit but never tries to steal the show, as she knows that the cello’s role here, even more than in the outer movements, is somewhat larger. The whole movement is beautifully played, Brahms rarely sounding so dreamy and serene.

Everything seems to unfold naturally in this performance: in the first movement, where drama and intensity abound much of the time, the soloists’ exchanges with each other and with orchestra fit the musical fabric like hand in glove. The joyous finale has a little more spirit and life here than you’ll hear in many versions: true, the music has an understated character some of the time, which the two players don’t overlook, but they wring out more joy and triumph in their manner of phrasing, with subtle accenting, gorgeous and (when necessary) gritty tone, and judicious pacing. Again, Wit and company turn in excellent work to round out one of finest pairings of these works I’ve ever heard. The sound reproduction is well balanced and quite vivid and the indefatigable Keith Anderson supplies very informative album notes.

As for the competition, Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky with Leonard Bernstein leading the Vienna Philharmonic on DG offer strong versions of both these works. There are of course many great performances of the Violin Concerto by Gluzman (BIS), Bell (Decca), Ferras (DG) and others, as well as excellent accounts of the Double Concerto by Rostropovich and Oistrakh (Warner Classics), and Gutman and Kagan (Melodiya), among others. I would say this new Naxos disc can stand comparison with the finest versions of either concerto and its fine sonic properties cede nothing to them. In every respect, these fresh and vital interpretations by Yang and Schwabe make this disc a complete success.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Leslie Wright

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