Johannes Brahms: Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major, op.77
Composed mainly in 1877-78, premiered in Leipzig on New Year's Day 1879. When Johannes Brahms composed his First Piano Concerto, which was a catastrophic failure at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1859, he was still searching for a path to the post- Beethovenian symphony. This ensured that the concerto, with its grand symphonic design, was barely fathomable to his contemporaries. By the time he composed his Violin Concerto twenty years later, he had already completed his first two symphonies, perfected his technique of developing variation and become a mature symphonist. This too ensured that his concerto, with its symphonic design, was difficult for the public to grasp. For there is one thing these two concertos are not: neither is standard virtuoso fare. Both are insanely difficult for the soloist (and equally insanely difficult to accompany), and both hide their huge technical challenges behind a structural probity that is not concerned with effects and instead focuses on formal logic and rigour, on structure and development. In the case of the Violin Concerto this has led to many choice bons mots. Pablo de Sarasate, for example, was outraged thatthe soloist had to tag after the oboist in the concerto's only genuine melody (he meant the opening of the middle movement).
Many violinists, even those who consider their technique impeccable, have dismissed the piece as unplayable. Soon the quip began to circulate that Brahms had written a concerto against rather than for the violin. This is a quality the piece shares with Beethoven's concerto, whose symphonic scope and seriousness of expression surely guided Brahms in his Op.77. The symphonic scope of Brahms's concerto bears witness to the mature symphonist at every turn. Even the unusually long orchestral introduction (actually a preliminary exposition) shows how he distributes the movement's weight. For eighty-nine bars the conductor tells the orchestra what has to be done with the chordal material from which Brahms develops the opening movement. Only then does the soloist enter - not with a grand gesture, but by taking over the line almost casually above a pastel-hued seventh chord. What then follows is tough mental and mechanical work for the violinist. But once the soloist penetrates this cosmos of double stops, broken chords, strings of trill and acerbic passagework, the added sensual value is considerable. The virtuoso comes into his own at last in the final movement. Here Brahms, with a glittering and sure-footed all'ongarese, placates even the sceptics among violinists and grants the
audience considerable visual appeal.
The appeal is all the greater when Leonidas Kavakos and Riccardo Chailly take the metronome marks found among Joseph Joachim's posthumous papers as their guide. It was Joachim who gave the work its premiere in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, under the composer's baton. Before then, he had given his pianist-friend Brahms crucial advice in the elaboration of the violin part. Though Brahms followed Joachim whenever he found something too difficult or impossible to play, he almost always pressed ahead with his own solutions rather than adopting the proposals from his violinist friend. The Gewandhaus premiere was a success, despite the reservations that many people held toward the work. And since Joachim immediately included his friend's concerto in his repertoire and played it all over the world, and since many of his countless pupils quickly learned to appreciate it in turn, it soon took hold. Today the Brahms Concerto is unquestionably among the most important and most frequently played works in its genre - which is also one reason why entire generations of performers have covered the score with idiosyncrasies and bad habits like mildew. The Teutonic heft with which many players have tried to reshape the work's alleged shortage of virtuosic impact has not always done it any favours. Riccardo Chailly and Leonidas Kavakos have gone, so to speak, back to the roots and returned to the score, to a compositional fabric which, when viewed from the standpoint of structure rather than effect, is not as doughy and massive as the clichés would have it. And when they do, an almost classical lucidity shines forth from behind the grand gestures.
Brahms: Hungarian Dances
In their day the Hungarian Dances for piano duet were an overnight sensation. None of Brahms's works had higher sales figures during his lifetime. Yet he did not even deign to give them an opus number. His scruples arose from the fact that not all the material for the twenty-one pieces flowed from his own pen; many he had taken from coffeehouse variants of Hungarian folk songs of the sort he had encountered in the 1850s, when he toured small-town venues as accompanist to the Hungarian violin virtuoso Eduard Reményi. This had no adverse effect on the work's success, however, and Brahms's publisher Simrock constantly badgered him to produce new arrangements. For example, Joseph Joachim arranged several of the favourite pieces for violin and piano for his own use. In this version, too, the dances display their irresistible rhythmic, melodic
and harmonic charm.
It is to Béla Bartók's tireless ethnomusicological research that we owe the discovery that the original tunes of Brahms's Hungarian Dances are not Hungarian folk songs at all. In 1928 Bartók wrote his two Rhapsodies for violin and piano, which he later arranged for violin and orchestra. The highly virtuosic and tremendously effective Rhapsodies are dedicated to his fellow countryman and close friend, Joseph Szigeti. In both pieces he borrowed preexisting material. But unlike Brahms in his polished Hungarian Dances, he took pains to
respect the identity of the music and to reshape it into art.
Peter Korfmacher, Translation J. Bradford Robinson