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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]

Rob Barnett welcomed this new coupling of the Brahms string concertos earlier this year, and I can only agree that there is something special about these performances. These works have been recorded too many times to count and I have usually returned to my old favourites when I want to listen to them. I will be adding these new accounts to my collection and I am sure to gain much pleasure from them in future.

My first recording of the Violin Concerto was with Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, but my allegiance changed once I heard Jascha Heifetz’s gripping account with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Heifetz and Reiner really whip things up and are arguably too speedy in the work’s outer movements. Still, there is something electrifying in their interpretation. As a contrast, I chose David Oistrakh’s nearly as renowned performance with Otto Klemperer and the French National Radio Orchestra at the opposite pole from Reiner. I used to like Klemperer’s pesante way with the finale in its heavy treaded folk dance. Now I find it just too slow, while Reiner is somewhat too fast for me. I will still return to those classic recordings for their uniquely individual interpretations. I also have fond memories of Perlman/Giulini with the Chicago Symphony, though I never added that to my collection. In any case, I will most certainly listen to this new account by Tianwa Yang now when I want to hear the Violin Concerto. With much of the Heifetz/Reiner fire and some of the Oistrakh/Klemperer monumentality, it contains the best of both. The orchestral performance is magnificent throughout with special praise to the oboe, bassoon, and horn players in the Adagio movement. Yang’s vibrato is on the fast side, but not to the degree of Heifetz’s. Her tone alternates from sweet to throaty, as the music demands, and her intonation is impeccable. She is, indeed, a major artist who I had not heard prior to this recording.

For the Double Concerto my benchmark is another classic: Zino Francescatti and Pierre Fournier with Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony. This was actually my second recording of the concerto, the first being Walter’s earlier one with Stern, Leonard Rose, and the New York Philharmonic. I have never heard any to equal those, as Walter displayed a special rapport with Brahms in this work. I briefly owned the super-charged account by Oistrakh, Rostropovich and the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, but it didn’t measure up to the others. It seems that Szell and his soloists couldn’t agree on a tempo for the last movement, with the orchestra rushing ahead after the soloists make their initial appearance at a slower tempo. The account under review has no such problems and like the Violin Concerto performance has much to recommend it. Whereas Walter’s later recording is taut and architecturally conceived, Wit is less granitic, yet with plenty of power. The Andante movement has a nice flow, but is not hurried. Yang’s quiet playing is radiant and Gabriel Schwabe matches her throughout. Where I find the Walter account superior is the conductor’s handling of the third movement’s primary, dance-like theme. The soloists and he select an ideal tempo, without hurrying, that is light on its feet. Wit pushes just a little more and does not have quite the dancing quality of Walter, but it’s a close call. Fournier’s solo cello passage from about 1:30-2:00 is thrilling as he digs into his low notes. Schwabe, while very good, does not match his predecessor there. Francescatti also indulges in a bit of portamento which Yang eschews. On the other hand, there are some tuning issues with the Columbia Symphony in this movement that are completely absent from the German orchestra’s performance. It also has to be admitted that the Walter recording is showing its age and cannot compare with the excellent sound on this new one. Thus, there are tradeoffs here and I wouldn’t want to be without either account.

With good notes on the music and the performers this new disc contains some very enjoyable, even outstanding Brahms. In addition, Naxos’s attractive price makes this especially desirable.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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