Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77 – Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 102
Vadim Repin (violin), Truls Mork (cello), Gewandhausorchester, Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
Recorded in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig (August 2008) – 72’50
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7470 – Booklet in English, German and French
For many, the main attraction of this release will be Vadim Repin’s first-ever Brahms concerto recording, and it’s a winner. The icing on the cake is the coupling, easily the best recording of the Double Concerto to come along in a very long time.
There are so many excellent recordings of the Violin Concerto, including many made in recent years in spectacular sound, that it is often difficult to find a good reason to purchase yet another rendition. While Repin and Chailly offer no astounding interpretive epiphanies, their collaboration still ends up atop a crowded field. In short, the playing of both Repin and the Gewandhausorchester is nonpareil, the recorded sound is transparent and beautifully balanced, and the interpretation is engrossing from first note to last. Touted on the front of the CD as “the greatest living violinist”, Repin could navigate the labyrinthine difficulties of this score in his sleep, and his effortless virtuosity and purity of tone throughout allow him to focus far beyond the notes, delivering an endless panorama of shading and varieties of vibrato.
One is immediately captured by the phrasing of the opening melody, followed by an uncannily paced crescendo leading to the first orchestral tutti. The soloist’s initial entry is confidently stated, not melodramatically overplayed, and Repin proceeds to toss off the demanding part with exquisite intonation, technique and phrasing, conjuring up a smorgasbord of colors as he moves from gossamer high figuration to gruff triple-stops. Those expecting an overflowing of Russian fire in the interpretation might be put off by the straight-forward interpretation of the exposition, but in the development section, both Repin and Chailly increase the volatility and individuality of the performance. Chailly’s excellence in the opera house is key here, the interaction between the orchestra and soloist a completely engaging dialogue. The lead-up to the recapitulation is thrillingly paced, Chailly faithfully drawing the orchestra down to true piano and pianissimo levels while Repin fearlessly soars and plummets through the texture in full voice. It all comes across as a magnificently staged and paced set-piece akin to Verdi’s best and continues to increase in passion, climaxing in the big “risk” of the recording: Repin’s choice to eschew the oft-performed Joachim cadenza for Jascha Heifetz’s more harmonically daring one. It is a brilliant choice, and it is great to have a new version of the concerto with this cadenza. Incidentally, Repin’s reading lasts exactly four minutes longer than Heifetz/Reiner, the older recording sounding like a white-hot brief encounter, the newcomer like a decades-long romance that burns with a rare, transcendental passion.
The second and third movements contain even more reasons to love this recording. The warmly expressive Gewandhaus woodwinds are flawless in the opening of the Adagio, with oboist Henrik Wahlgren as an excellent leader. In the minor-mode central episode, Repin indulges in just the right amount of portamenti, and the quickening of his vibrato as he ascends for the dolce return of the main melody is about as good as it gets. The finale benefits most from the extraordinarily transparent recorded sound, noticeable immediately in the strings’ opening arpeggios, which have never sounded so precise or bubbly. The only aspects I miss in this movement are more presence and articulation from the timpani, especially leading into the first return of the theme, and more punch on the sforzando syncopations throughout the movement.
The Double Concerto is a more problematic work. The scoring is almost prickly in its sparseness, and it takes perfect symbiosis between orchestra, conductor and soloists the make the work not sound episodic. Truls Mork arrests the listener with an assertive opening cadenza, faithfully observing Brahms’ ma sempre in tempo indication. Throughout the first movement, it almost seems like Mork’s show, though this is likely due to the perfect dialogue happening between the soloists. The cello introduces most of the material, and Repin is completely in sync with Mork’s presentation. The development features some delicious aggressive playing from the soloists, which could have been mimicked more faithfully by Chailly (again, more assertive timpani and brass playing would have been nice here). The lead-up to the recapitulation is again a beautifully sculpted crescendo and highlights the impressive dynamic range of the recording.
The Andante continues in the same vein, the warmth of the playing emphasizing the folk-like qualities of the melody. This movement has always struck me as somewhat sleepy, but the simplicity of the reading here, with no melodrama or excessive rubato anywhere, gives it an entrancing naivety.
For my money, the finale is the best-played movement on the entire disc. There is an extra dose of urgency to the opening, and the ascent of the second theme through the orchestra is glorious. This theme’s return in A major near the work’s end, with the cello playing above the violin, is a soothing balm for the intensity of the preceding seven minutes of the movement. The playing from that moment to the end trumps everything on the disc, the “poco meno Allegro” featuring some extremely soft and fast playing from the soloists that sends more shivers down the spine than the louder moments. At the very end I longed for Chailly to let the brass and timpani play with a touch more abandon, but this is a small quibble for an otherwise excellent recording of the work.
As noted, the recorded sound on the disc is excellent throughout. Repin is recorded quite close in the solo concerto. The two soloists are better integrated into the texture in the double concerto, and this emphasizes the “concerto grosso” qualities of the work. The liner notes include a brief essay with comments from the performers on both concertos, including a discussion of Repin’s choice of the Heifetz cadenza.