How Many Versions Of Brahms Violin Concerto Does One Need?

My dear readers and fellow music lovers, no I’m not dead nor sick, I’ve just been on an intense 3 weeks business trip which kept me from posting.

Everything should be back to the regular 2-3x update schedule as of now. Thanks for your patience!

Brahms Violin Concerto

To answer my own rhetorical above question first: One more than you currently own as of recently.

OK, if you were a purist, you could say, just get Heifetz and be done with it. And you’d have a valid point. But then again, you’d be missing so much, for example the recording I’m just about to write about.

At latest count, I have 24 versions of this masterpiece in my library, and this is not counting the huge number of versions I could access any time via Qobuz streaming.

So why the heck would I want to add one more? Especially with Heifetz’ legendary version around, not even mentioning Faust’s fantastic version (reviewed here previously, 5 stars)?

Janine Jansen

The answer is simple and is called Janine Jansen. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I’m a big Isabelle Faust fanboy, and gobble up and love pretty much all she’s doing.

Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist, is another example where I’ve rarely ever been disappointed. Her Beethoven and Mendelssohn recordings are among my absolute favorites, and even her Four Seasons are a lot of fun. I’ve already mentioned her a couple of times, including here and here, in her role as excellent chamber musician. But obviously she really shines when she is in the lead.

Janine Jansen and Antonio Pappano playing Brahms and Bartók

Janine Jansen Brahms Bartok Violin Concertos Antonio Pappano London Symphony Orchestra Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Decca 2015

How to describe Jansen’s Brahms? Well, between the two extremes of Heifetz (extreme passion) and Faust (extreme clarity), you probably get a nice balance in between.

There is definitely more vibrato and more rubato than with Faust, and while I love the clean sound of Faust’s Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius,  Jansen’s Barrere from the same genius violin maker’s factory, with a slightly darker tone, is outstanding as well.

Another difference is the cadenza, Faust playing the rare Busoni cadenza, with Jansen chasing the more traditional Joachim cadenza (by Brahms’ friend and favorite violinist).

Obviously I also need to mention Pappano. He’s done great things with his recent opera recordings (e.g. the Aida reviewed here), but if any more proof was needed he’s also an excellent conductor for concertos, here you have it.

In a nutshell, this is perfection. A different kind of perfection than Faust or Heifetz, but perfection nevertheless. A must have if you like Brahms. (At some point I’ll do a comparison between all my 25 versions, from Neveu to Jansen. Just need to find a LOT of time).

Bartók

I haven’t written a word about the Bartók yet. This is simply because I’m much more unfamiliar with this work than the Brahms, my only two comparators being Faust (again, I know), and Oistrakh, so I won’t comment here beyond the fact that I like what I hear. Maybe this is the version that will finally get me more hooked on the Hungarian composer (I really appreciate him, but rarely listen extensively).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

Two Recent Releases I Really Don’t Like

What “Not Good” Looks Like

I’ve been writing a lot about albums I really like, just witness the number of 4 and 5 star reviews (you can click on the link on the side bar, categories to find them) I’ve recently written (for more information about my personal rating scale, see here)

However, for this site to be useful to anybody, I strongly believe I also need to write about stuff I don’t like that much, so you can check if your taste really agrees with mine.

Too many reviewers seem to have their rating scale only between 4 and 5. How do you really separate the good from the bad this way? Obviously, a  big part of this is just selection bias.

I assume, professional reviewers are not too much unlike me and much more prefer to write about stuff they like vs. stuff they don’t  like. Same has happened on my site so far, with few exceptions.

My two main sources of classical reviews, Gramophone (UK) and Classica (FR) don’t shy away from low ratings, that’s what I like about them. Gramophone doesn’t use a rating scale beyond the Editor’s Choice, but you can clearly read from the text whether they are enthusiastic or not.

And Classica really doesn’t shy away from using 1 stars, given the two examples below. And unfortunately, I wholeheartedly agree with their assessment.

Dudamel, Barenboim and Brahms

Classical uses a 4 star plus “Choc” scale, which equals about my 5 star system. However, in their most recent October issue, I’ve seen a new rating of a hollow star which I had never noticed before, for this recent DG release of Barenboim for once back at the piano, with the young superstar Dudamel. Unfortunately, I must agree with Classica here. I really cannot find any positive element to these recordings of the two concertos that I love so much (how weird I haven’t mentioned them yet on the blog).

Honestly, 1 min into the opening of the first piano concerto I had enough; there was nothing at all of the drama and desperation that so much impressed me when I heard this first at the age of 17. I know Dudamel has many fans, but I have yet to hear a recording of him that I really like (admittedly, I’ve only heard a few). And when Barenboim comes in, it doesn’t get any better. I’m really thankful for streaming these days that let’s you listen to recordings without having to buy them, I’d really have major regrets for this one.

Brahms Piano Concertos Dudamel Barenboim 2015

My rating: 2 stars (1 star for me really means un-listenable, and Brahms will always be Brahms, even if butchered like here).

For the Brahms concertos, you have many good alternatives, from pretty much every recording that Georges Szell ever made of them (be it Fleischer, Curzon, or Serkin), to Chailly with Freire for a more contemporary one.

Arabella Steinbacher Plays Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky

Arabella Steinbacher Mendelssohn Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Charles Duitoit Pentatone

Here’s another disappointment: Arabella Steinbacher is a truly great violin player. However, from the opening moments of the Mendelssohn I knew something was very wrong. A very sweet tone with a lot of vibrato, but very little energy behind it.

And in comes the orchestra (let me open a little parenthesis here for fun: Mendelssohn is one of the very few orchestras that starts with the soloist, not with the orchestra, there’s an urban legend that a violinist player was relaxed at the beginning of the concert, assuming he’ll have to play Beethoven. The conductor gives him signal after signal, but the violinist doesn’t get it. Finally, the conductor desperately starts, the violinist after the first second realizes his mistake and raises up the violin literally last-minute. Parenthesis closed. If somebody has a source that this has really happened, please let me know) and it really doesn’t get any better.

The Tchaikovsky is equally uninteresting unfortunately.

Classica agrees with me, giving this recording a rather brutal 1 star and talking about a “lack of engagement” which nicely summarizes my feelings as well.

My rating: 2 stars (again, 1 star would be too brutal, I can listen to this, I just don’t want to).

Excellent alternatives are Janine Jansen on Decca for the Mendelssohn , and Julia Fischer for the Tchaikovsky (like the Steinbacher, on Pentatone).

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part II – Concerto

After my comments on the “Instrumental” category of the Gramophone Awards last Saturday here, let me highlight some more gems in the Concerto category.

Nominated are:

The Beethoven Journey – Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven’s piano concertos 2 & 4

The Beethoven Journey - Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4 - Leif Ove Andsnes - Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven again, piano concertos 3 & 4 by Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Britten / MacMIllan / Vaughan Williams played by the Britten Sinfonia (not heard)

Bruch & Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos by Guro Kleven Hagen with the Oslo Phlharmonic and Bjarte Engeset

Bruch Prokofiev Violin Concertos Guro Kleven Hagen Oslo Philharmonic Bjaerte Engeset

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto by Alisa Weilerstein with Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Alisa Weilerstein Jiri Belohlavek Dvorak Cello Concerto Decca Classics

Mozarts Violin Concertos 3 – 5, Arabella Steinbacher, Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne

Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4, 5 - Arabella Steinbacher - Festival Strings Lucerne - Daniel Dodds

As said above, I haven’t heard the Britten album (and actually don’t care much about Britten in the first place, so wouldn’t be in a good place to talk about the album.

Two other albums I only gave a quick spin, so I’m not going to rate them, which are the Mozart concertos by Arabella Steinbacher, and the Prokofiev/Bruch combo by the young Norvegian violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, that I hadn’t heard of before. My admittedly superficial impression on both were solid performances, nothing wrong with them, but also nothing that would motivate me to go back. One argument in favor of the Arabella Steinbacher is that it is recorded on Pentatone, that usually has an outstanding recording quality, so if you have a good Hifi, you may want to check it out.

The three albums I have heard in more detail are the two Beethovens and the Dvorak.

Let me start with Maria Joao Pires first. I’m very happy to report that after my rather lukewarm review of her Schumann concerto with Gardiner, in this recording I can reconfirm that I’m a fan. Very delicate, nuanced playing. I’ve already praised Daniel Harding in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and also the Orchestral part is doing a fine job here.

My rating: 4 stars

However, to my ears, with Leif Ove Andsnes it gets even better. I’ve already declared how much I like his Grieg, and here on Beethoven with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra which Andsnes conducts from the piano, the result is just really really nice. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this combo play concertos 2-4 live late last year, and the recording fully  captures the energy and passion by both soloist and orchestra. No. 4 is anyhow my preferred Beethoven concerto, and this is definitely one of the best versions I have. However, to my ears, they are even better on piano concerto no. 2 (side note: wrongly numbered, this should have been his no. 1 chronologically), which really benefits from the lighter sound of the Mahler Chamber.

My rating: 5 stars

But who is my predicted category winner? Well, by exclusion you could have guessed it: Alisa Weilerstein’s Dvorak. We recently already got an excellent reading of this concerto with Stephen Isserlis on Hyperion, and obviously there are a lot of outstanding historic recordings (Starker, Du Pré, etc.), this version just gets what is the essential for me in this concerto (my favorite piece by Dvorak by the way): the romantic passion. (Side note: When Brahms, who mentored Dvorak for a while, read the score, he’s quoted: “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” If only he had…). This recording is pure emotion. I suppose having a Czech orchestra playing music by their most famous local composer helps. There are some minor technical glitches here and there, but they don’t really matter, you don’t even notice.

My rating: 5 stars

So, what do you think? What are your predictions?

Isabelle Faust and Brahms’ Violin Concerto – Just Magical

My blog’s subtitle has Brahms in it, and I haven’t even mentioned good old Johannes for a while.So let me correct this by writing about his violin concerto, and my favorite versions.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Brahms was a pianist, not a violinist, and so he needed an expert on what to do and not to do. Luckily, one of his best friends, Joseph Joachim, was one of the leading violinists of his time, so he consulted extensively with him while writing this piece in 1878.

Obviously, this concerto has been recorded over and over again, so there are a lot of amazing versions to choose from. However, there is a relatively recent 2011 recording which I really love more than most others.

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

There are so many outstanding young violin players these days, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn, etc. etc. etc. We are really spoilt these days. However, Isabelle Faust is in a way my personal favorite, probably because she does a lot of excellent chamber music as well (more about that later).

This recording of the violin concerto with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, a young rising star in the conductor scene, has not received praise across the board. Some even called her tone “thin”. Well, I agree her way of playing is always rather on the light than the heavy side, but to me it feels just right. Faust writes in the excellent liner notes that she has studied Joseph Joachim extensively, both his personality, but also historic sources about his playing style. Overall, Faust plays historically informed, but unlike in some other cases this doesn’t mean no vibrato at all, but just a more selective use of it.

The smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches her transparency very well, this is a match made in heaven. As a side note, these days younger orchestras like the MCO or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are becoming more and more serious competition to the established big boys in Berlin/Vienna/London. I suppose we music lovers we can only be happy about this, as it hopefully keeps everybody on their toes.

A curiosity about this version is the use of the unusual Busoni cadenza, so if you are familiar with this work you’re in for a little surprise.

String Sextet No. 2

As mentioned before, Faust is an excellent chamber musician as well (her Beethoven sonatas are my absolute favorite). So as a “filler” we get the beautiful String Sextet No. 2, which is well worth listening to. A sextet is a more rarely heard form of chamber music, but for Brahms these were actually his first venture into pure string chamber music, and successful in the way that helped further build his name as a composer.

A little piece of trivia: Brahms fell in love many times during his life, but remained a bachelor nevertheless. Occasionally, we get glimpses into his love life from his music, like in the case of the Alto Rhapsody (see my earlier post here). In this case, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold, and nicely enough, you’ll get the motive “A-G-A-H-E” (H being the key for B in German notation) as a leitmotif several times in the first movement.

Overall rating: 5 stars. This, as usual is a very personal judgment. If you agree with me, please comment, if you don’t, I’d love to hear why!

And if you want a more traditional Brahms, you can always go to Oistrakh/Klemperer and Heifetz/Reiner, both outstanding in their own way.

You can get it here as download and here as physical album.

Vilde Frang’s Outstanding Version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Let me start a bit off-topic: Why do I write about Sibelius right now?

If you’ve watched this blog for a bit, or if you’ve bothered to scroll down my main page, you’ll see that my blog topic selection look rather arbitrary and randomly selected and doesn’t follow a clear pattern. And to be fair, this is pretty much exactly how I chose my topics, by inspiration. It is very similar to how i decide to which album to listen next, whatever inspires me. The only connecting factor is that I only write about music or related topics that I really care about.

Diskothek im 2 / Disques en lice

So back to the question: Why Sibelius right now? The simple answer is: I just listened to a great podcast about it. Or actually 2. Let me clarify: My adopted country, Switzerland, has rather average public television, but two great classical music radio stations, one German (SRF2) one French (Espace 2) speaking. Both get to produce their own proprietary content, including a show that is based on the principle of inviting a couple of experts, and listening to a select number of recordings of a certain classical work, and have the expert discuss them blindly, and chose a “winner”. This show is called “Diskothek im 2” for the German, and “Disques en lice” for the French version.

Both recently decided to review Sibelius violin concerto, with a slightly different selection of versions. There was one overlap however, the winner, which is the album I’ll be talking about in a minute. And while I don’t always agree with the experts (in the end, it is all also a question of taste), listening blindly is really a good way of seeing if you REALLY like a version or you’re just preferring it because of the great name of the artist.

Sibelius’ violin concerto

Again, I don’t want to be Wikipedia, if you want to find more about the violin concerto, go here or here. Let me just say that the violin concerto is the only piece from Sibelius i really love. I still need to “get used” to the symphonies and symphonic poems he wrote. I fell in love with the violin concerto early on as it was coupled with the Beethoven violin concert on this low-price Sony release from the 1990s. I was lucky, because it included the Sibelius in a version by the great David Oistrakh which is recommended in the second link above, so by chance I ended up having a very good version.

MI0000958869

So feel free to check this version out, it is still very much recommended.

However, today I want to talk about the recording that won both Disques en Lice and Diskothek im 2: the 2009 recording with Vilde Frang

Vilde Frang

5099968441357_600

This was Frang‘s first major commercial record at the age of 22. And what a performance it is. It has both the cold/ghostly nordic impressions of what I imagine Finland must look like (I’ve never been) but also at the right moments has all the fire and energy this late romantic concerto needs. She’s from Norway by the way, so geographically not very far from Finland. No idea if this helps or if this is just a cliché. The conductor, that I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, Thomas Søndergård, is as you can see from the Ø’s and å’s in the name also from Scandinavia, Denmark in this case. Only the orchestra being from the nice town of Cologne, doesn’t qualify as Scandinavian at all.

A side note on German radio orchestras (recognizable by the WDR/NDR/HR or whatever abbreviation, the R meaning radio) are usually quite good, albeit not at the level of a Berlin Philharmonic. However, some of them can be really great, like this one. The Orchestra and Søndergård are doing a great job here as well, and soloist and orchestra are really well-integrated.

This being an “album”, a concept which was forced on us by the LP, and later CD, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for classical music, we not only get the Sibelius, which would have been perfectly fine by me, but you also get a violin concerto by Prokofiev, and some minor “Humoresques” by Sibelius. While I like some of Prokofievs piano music and his “classical” symphony, I cannot find a lot of interest in his violin concerto (no judgment on quality here, just personal preference), and the Humoresques are nice fillers.

Overall rating: 5 stars (applies to the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the album I cannot be bothered with)

A nice alternative recording which I also really like, with another young rising star on the violin, is the version with Lisa Batiashvili (We are living in great times with so many fantastic violin players around). On this recording, you even get a Finnish orchestra with it.

0886971293623_600