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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Violin Concerto, Op. 36 [35:42]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 [41:29]
Jack Liebeck (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay
rec. 2019, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London

n his booklet note, Jack Liebeck explains some family history that lies behind this new recording. His pairing of the Brahms and Schoenberg Violin Concertos in part references the suffering of his Dutch/German Jewish family at the hands of the Nazis. In 1934 his grandfather Walter Liebeck took refuge in South Africa, and Walter’s favourite piece was the Brahms Violin Concerto. The Schoenberg concerto was written not long after the start of the Jewish composer’s own exile in 1933. Of course it’s a work that takes a bit of getting to know, and while well worth that trouble, a clear and accurate recording is the essential tool for most of us.

Liebeck’s Schoenberg is more than that though, a very fine account of a work which still needs champions prepared to master its difficulties. Heifetz notoriously declared it unplayable unless a violinist developed a sixth finger – “I can wait” was Schoenberg’s reply. In fact it has been shown to be perfectly playable, and there are ossias in the score for some of the trickier moments. Liebeck can not only play the notes, he can express the musical ideas in a way that makes the whole piece sound entirely coherent. Perhaps as more young players take it up it will make its way more regularly onto concert programmes.

Liebeck’s very opening gives a taste of what is to come. Yes, it is the work’s foundational twelve note series, but it sounds ingratiatingly lyrical – one commentator remarked of the opening of the work “how violinistic it sounds”. It soon develops a more dramatic edge, with some combative tensions with the orchestra, or rather groups of instruments within it. The BBC players are ideal partners of course, being an orchestra which hardly gives a concert without a contemporary or newly-commissioned work in it, and so is adept at mastering unfamiliar works. Conductor Andrew Gourlay keeps everyone alert and responsive, and Liebeck is impressive in the very tricky sounding first movement cadenza.

The start of the Andante grazioso second movement has Liebeck refining his tone down to a sweet and absorbed piano, while he and the orchestral players, again often reduced to a handful, give many passages a chamber musical feeling. The tempo is a good one, so that the occasional slightly faster sections (e.g. that at about 5:05 on) are accommodated within a flowing andante motion. The finale’s march-like character is well-realised, as are the early ‘quasi-cadenza’ and the big accompanied cadenza proper – Liebeck is here at his most commanding. The final big climax (12:00) is hammered home with bold effect by the BBCSO.

Schoenberg once wrote an intriguing essay on “Brahms the Progressive”, and his title was not meant to be ironic, so this coupling is not an erratic idea. The interpretation is a traditional one, but for all the wonderful skill of the soloist, the emotional temperature in the first movement initially burns a bit too low for what is after all one of the great Romantic concertos, and the greatest movement ever written for violin and orchestra. After a staid account of the orchestral introduction, Liebeck does his very best to turn up the heat with a noble entry, but we rather meander for a while, though the second subject is exquisitely played by the soloist when we get there. The problem is partly one of tempo – the first movement approaches 24 minutes, rather more than the modern norm for this movement. Lisa Batiashvili on DGG (with Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle) takes 21 minutes, which is swifter enough to notice a difference in energy.

But things improve after that, as if they all had needed time to get into such an over-familiar concerto. It’s also possible that the demands of the Schoenberg occupied a disproportionate amount of time at the recording sessions. The first movement cadenza (that by Fritz Kreisler, a welcome change from the usual Joachim one) is splendidly executed. The principal oboe and his colleagues launch the slow movement with grace, and Liebeck’s echo of it at his entry is flexible and touching. He plays with admirable intensity here. The finale has all the spirit missing earlier, its Hungarian credentials well to the fore, in a high-stepping account from everybody. The well-balanced recording, if not quite out of the top drawer of modern two channel sound, is certainly more than adequate and the relative “size” of the violin and orchestra in the sound picture provides a convincing concert hall perspective. There is a good booklet note on the music, as well as the one by the soloist.

In summary, a successful coupling, even if the first half of the Brahms first movement is a bit cool for my taste. The Schoenberg is the thing here, given a terrific performance, and one to make new friends for the work itself. It does not sweep the board though, for Hilary Hahn and Salonen remain untouchable still (DGG 2008, coupled with the Sibelius concerto). In particular their fire and commitment take nearly six minutes off the Orchid timing. But Liebeck’s exploratory manner is just as persuasive in its own way.

Roy Westbrook

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