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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1867)
Violin Concerto WoO 1 in D minor [30:42]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra Op. 102 in A minor [32:29]
Antje Weithaas (violin), Maximilian Hornung (cello), NDR Radiophilharmonie/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017, Großer Sendesaal im Landesfunkhaus Hannover, Germany
CPO 555 172-2 [63:25]

While this new release on the CPO label would seem to be the only current coupling of these two concertos, there are a number of valid reasons why this should work really well in practice.

Firstly, it unites two composers who met for the first time in 1853 and who, despite their age difference at the time – Brahms was a mere twenty, while Schumann was over twice that, and just three years from his death – were in admiration of each other’s talent and achievements. In fact, when Schumann started his descent into mental illness, and his ultimate demise, Brahms was soon there to comfort Clara Schumann in her tragic loss, and the two remained lifelong friends ever after.

Secondly, these two concertos, both of which were written for the violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, have a number of things in common. The solo violin parts may well have been crafted to reflect his Austro-Hungarian pedigree, and, without doubt, there is definitely a look back in the direction of J. S. Bach. The resulting musical mix might even have appeared somewhat austere to concert-goers and critics at the time, and this could have contributed to both concertos’ relative lack of popularity, even without having to come up with two equally talented soloists in the Brahms. Finally, they are both cast in similarly ‘sorrowful’ keys, according to the German philologist, Carl Csillagh, writing in his Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1837), where he postulates that while with A minor, some cheerfulness may be present, it’s still unable to mask any sorrow fully. The more crushing D minor, on the other hand, suggests heart-rending sadness, whence there is but little chance of recovery.

Schumann completed his Violin Concerto in a mere two weeks, inspired by the young Brahms and the equally youthful Joachim, two years Brahms’ elder. However, only a year after the concerto was finished, Schumann had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital near Bonn, where he died in 1856. Along with his other late works, the Violin Concerto was withheld from the public by Schumann’s family and friends, since it was seen to ‘bear traces of his mental condition’; the manuscript eventually ended up among Joachim’s possessions. His son then placed a ban on its performance that lasted from his father’s death until 1956. The publishing house of Schott had insisted that a first edition was issued, albeit prematurely, in 1937, but it proved to have too many editorial failings. As a concerto per se, Joachim had commented that ‘there were wonderful things in the first and second movements’, but countered this by saying that the finale was ‘horribly difficult’. Unlike most violin concertos, the solo part is not just technically-awkward, but is set unusually low in the instrument’s tessitura, or range. Equally, the composer is not over-generous in affording the soloist opportunities for pure bravura. Neither does it contain any solo cadenzas. Schumann was studying Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin at the time, and this may well have left its mark on the shape of some of the figurations which the soloist encounters along the way.
The opening movement, marked Im kräftigen, nicht zu schnellen Tempo – at a powerful, yet not too rapid tempo – certainly begins with a robust-enough theme, reminiscent of the composer’s own Fourth Symphony, also in D minor. Conductor Andrew Manze and the NDR Radiophilharmonie are on fine form here, with some really taut playing that draws every ounce of precision from the frequent dotted rhythms, while treating the lyrical second subject with great sensitivity. Antje Weithaas makes a commanding, and full-blooded entry, even though Schumann’s writing, hard that it surely is, isn’t designed, first and foremost, to require overt virtuosity from the performer. Weithaas’s subsequent playing of the second subject is suitably expressive and delivered with true stylistic empathy. In terms of overall design, the movement almost harks back to that of the Baroque concerto grosso, where it’s often more a case of tutti versus solo, than seamless integration, and just occasionally I feel that the soloist might have been afforded slightly greater prominence on the recording, especially when the pervading dynamic is very quiet. A glance at the orchestral score confirms just how tricky the writing is at times, and, as such, it’s a pity that this can go unnoticed on the recording.

The second movement – Langsam, or slow – has a most promising and hushed opening from the cellos, over which the soloist ‘sings’ an eminently soulful melody. Despite opening in the key of B flat major, the music seems more and more to favour the minor tonality, G minor in particular. Here again, Weithaas has all the lyricism and fullness of tone necessary to convey Schumann’s typically song-like creation, but again she might have benefited from a slightly elevated recording level. True, the score is almost obsessively strewn with pianissimos, in both solo and orchestral parts, and, in a live performance dynamic balance is perhaps easier to manage, given that the eyes will help the ears in focussing on the performer’s exact position on the concert platform.

Then, with a final brief return to the major, by way of a neat harmonic step down, almost before you realise it you are in the jaunty finale, in the tonic major key of D. Perhaps this was one of those instances where the concerto had been unfairly criticised for appearing to show signs of the composer’s mental instability – by somewhat abruptly following the serenest slow movement with a polonaise, a dance popular at the time, and which allowed Schumann to sell his Concerto as a ‘thoroughly cheerful piece’ to his publisher. Marked Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell – lively, yet not fast – the movement does what any self-respecting polonaise does, for almost all of its ten minutes or so. Weithaas captures the sprightliness of the polonaise with the neatness of her articulation allied to a light and effective use of the bow, and overall the balance is more favourable to the soloist here, although the orchestra is never backward in coming forward, whenever the opportunity arises.

There is an interesting postscript as far as Schumann’s concerto goes. When the two deferred world premieres of the work did eventually take place, it became something of a political hot-potato. An ‘improved’ version was first heard in Berlin in 1937, arranged by composer Paul Hindemith, and violinist Georg Kulenkampff, who, together, attempted to make the solo part more brilliant, often by transposing some of it up an octave, but also by comprehensively tweaking the musical fabric itself. The performance was broadcast on radio and a short while later the premier recording was issued on the Telefunken label. However, both were intended, in fact, as ideological propaganda for the Nazis, since Mendelssohn’s ever-popular Violin Concerto in E minor had now been dropped from German concert programmes because of anti-Semitic hostility, and Schumann’s work – despite any musical failings – was then substituted as a genuinely ‘German’ equivalent.

The premiere was originally given to Yehudi Menuhin, but he was later dismissed because of his ‘Jewish’ ancestry – he was born in New York City to a family of Lithuanian Jews. Menuhin then arranged a second premiere, playing the composer’s original version, held at the same time in New York’s Carnegie Hall, but with piano accompaniment only. Before the end of 1937, Menuhin repeated this, now with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, much to the humiliation of the Nazis, who tried in vain to stop the performance from going ahead, despite it being on the other side of the Atlantic. The following year Menuhin also made the first recording of the work in its original version, again in New York, under Sir John Barbirolli on the RCA Victor label. After Wold War 2 the concerto floundered, with few performers prepared to take it up. In 2009 and 2010, two urtext editions were eventually published, and Schumann’s Concerto began to come to the fore once more, and is now well on the way to winning a more permanent place in the repertoire.

Fortunately, Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello had a much easier passage, while still not heard as frequently as his concertante works for a single soloist. The concept of a concerto for more than one instrument has a long history, going back to works like Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. However, the Romantic era was more about wearing your emotions on your sleeve, and where virtuosity formed a big part in this, as witness his Violin Concerto and the Second Piano Concerto in particular. Brahms, though, is often described as both a traditionalist, and an innovator, so his Double Concerto essentially represents something quite innovative that seeks to combine the old with the new. As a contemporary observer commented in an early Brahms biography, ‘with his Double Concerto, you will also get a symphony thrown in’. Over the course of time, Brahms’s friendship with Joachim had fallen on somewhat rocky ground, and so, according to Schumann’s wife Clara, Brahms had seen this work as a means of making peace with his long-standing friend. For, not only does the work contain hidden references to Viotti’s Violin Concerto in A minor (in the same key) – a work that Joachim particularly admired – but there is also an undeniably Hungarian-sounding feel to the finale. Needless to say, Brahms’s work had the desired effect in terms of regenerating the two men’s friendship.

Unlike Schumann’s conventional orchestral exposition, Brahms introduces the solo cello first, after the briefest orchestral call-to-arms of literally a few seconds, after which the violin enters, now following another much calmer and just slightly-extended orchestral contribution. As with the Schumann, Manze ensures that the orchestra grabs the listener’s attention from the very start of the Allegro. The situation with the soloists, however, is somewhat different, given that neither player shares the same kind of attention-grabbing opening as the orchestra, but eventually they combine to produce an increasingly-more-impressive and powerful partnership. Here, cellist Maximilian Hornung proves an ideal partner for Weithaas, and clearly there has been a great deal of prior rehearsal and, it would seem, more considered sound balancing on the day, with the result that there is a real sense of homogeneity between them both, and with the orchestra, whether playing together or singly. From here on, both players appear intimately entwined in the musical argument, which Brahms ensures that, as far as possible, is shared equally between them both. As with the composer’s First Piano Concerto, there is no first-movement cadenza.

The Andante slow movement is a lovely creation, with one of those expansive melodies which Brahms had little or no trouble in writing. Sharing it between the two soloists, an octave apart, produces a simple, yet magical effect, which is especially successful here because of the clear empathy and understanding between the players, who really then sound as one.

The sonata-rondo finale – marked Vivace non troppo – features a somewhat moody dance-like theme, with a definite gypsy feel. As before, both soloists get their fair share of the thematic material to develop and expand upon, while Manze and his orchestral players once more make the most of every tutti section, which really helps keep things moving. Perhaps a special mention for the enthusiasm of the timpanist wouldn’t go amiss at this juncture. The first episode harks back to the calm of the slow movement, though the dance theme is never far away. By contrast, the more extended second episode provides greater variety, both texturally, and in terms of having a number of different sections. The reprise of the second episode now brings the music firmly back to the tonic major – A major – in preparation for the close, which is decisively effective when it comes, though not unduly prolonged for mere effect. And just for the record, it’s good to have an opportunity to enjoy Weithaas’s assured playing at the top end of the register here, something which unfortunately featured all too rarely in the Schumann.

If you were simply in the market for a single CD that included both these concertos, you need look no further. Even though this is currently the only choice, Antje Weithaas and Maximilian Hornung still do a fine job as respective soloists. Conductor Andrew Manze plays his part with the NDR Radiophilharmonie, and CPO’s recording captures everything with true fidelity. I do, though, have some reservations about the recording balance in the Schumann, which, as a consequence, does tend to dumb down Weithaas’s otherwise sterling contribution at times.

But if you don’t need both works on the same disc, then there is a far greater choice out there. Dominy Clements, in his review of the Schumann Concerto with Thomas Zehetmair in 2016 additionally provides some further information about other performances available at the time, while Brian Wilson has written an equally insightful review of the Brahms with violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis as soloists.

Philip R Buttall

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