INKPOT#75 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BRAHMS Violin Concerto. Violin Sonata No. 3 Vengerov/Chicago SO/Barenboim (Teldec)

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
(with first movement cadenza by Vengerov)
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
conducted by DANIEL BARENBOIM (piano)

TELDEC 0630-17144-2
[61:52] full-price

by Derek Lim

Interesting looking cover, I thought to myself as I went to test-drive this CD at Tower.  Then I heard the gorgeous orchestral introduction to the Violin Concerto, and then the vital playing, and the obvious musicality.  After testing one or two other tracks, I decided to buy it.  What a rewarding purchase!  The coupling may be odd (who has thought of doing such a programme before?) but ultimately very satisfying.  Let’s take a look at the Violin Concerto first.  Barenboim starts the first movement with a simply gorgeous accompaniment (some may find it too gorgeous; I find it exquisite), with Brahmsian, rustling leaves in the strings.  The view of the work is, not surprisingly for Barenboim, a full-blooded Romantic approach, hardly the lean approach espoused by Kremer or Harnoncourt.  He finds his ideal collaborator in Vengerov; despite some places where Barenboim wants to linger on a phrase but Vengerov thinks it better to speed ahead, they fit hand-in-glove.

Maxim Vengerov Vengerov (left) uses a 1723 Stradivarius in this recording, an instrument with a very lovely tone, and one which holds its own with his athletic style of performance.  In terms of maturity of performance, Vengerov certainly acquits himself well; there is hardly a need to excuse him in this respect. Nevertheless there are spots where Barenboim’s sure-footed experience in Brahmsian line and phrasing show Vengerov up a little, with a comparative lack of patience on Vengerov’s side.

Vengerov’s performance is itself passionate and with a touch of youthful abandon (sample the beginning of the last movement) which I find very attractive.  He certainly turns a Brahmsian phrase well.  Barenboim’s conducting, as I said, is clear-headed and very creative as well (I defy you to listen to the last bit of the last movement and not smile afterwards!)  The Chicago-ians prove themselves once again to be one of the world’s greatest orchestras, very different from their Solti-era performances, with the emphasis now on the ensemble rather than solo parts (Bravo Barenboim!).  Having said that, Alex Klein’s second movement oboe solo is certainly marvelous, and very beautiful.

The duo of Barenboim and Vengerov pace the concerto expertly, and this performance is very high on my list.  This is a wonderfully fresh performance, which I will return to very often, I suspect.

Some 31 opuses and eight years after the Violin Concerto is the Violin Sonata (1886). This is, as expected, given a very good performance as well. The view, shared apparently by the both musicians, is of an autumnal work, which bides well in the general placement of this sonata in Brahms’ output (it ranks generally with the clarinet sonatas for example, as a late work). If sparks ever flew, they do here in the tempestuous last movement of the sonata, which in the delightful notes, was apparently too difficult for even Brahms and Joachim themselves when they tried to play it without rehearsal.

I once thought this sonata oblique and obtuse, which doesn’t really work sometimes, but seen in the light of such a musically well-argued performance, with such frission, all doubts fly away. For those who really care about such things, the piano sound is well-balanced against that of the violin, making them equal (sparring?) partners from the outset. Playing is impeccable on Vengerov’s side, and pacing is expert, with Vengerov using more portamento than in the violin concerto.

In sum, with music-making of such persuasion, I think that if you buy this CD (and I urge you to), you’ll have many, many hours of delightful listening.

If you are in Singapore, this disc can be found at or ordered from Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren), or Sing Discs (Raffles City).B is for Bach and Beethoven, but mostly Brahms at the moment, for Derek Lim

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