John J. Puccio
, May 2011
Here are two oldies but goodies, the Brahms and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos with violinist Henryk Szeryng, conductor Bernard Haitink, and the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra, both recordings dating from the mid Seventies and newly reissued by our friends at Newton Classics.
The disc begins with the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Brahms’s only violin concerto, written in 1878. Brahms composed the piece at around the same time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and both of them promote a kind of bucolic idyll. However, the slightly later Violin Concerto is the more robust, rugged work, lofty and aristocratic as well as rustic and rhapsodic.
As Brahms was a classicist as well as a Romanticist, Szeryng and Haitink play the Concerto that way. It’s still a virtuosic piece of music, yet the musicians never over romanticize it in any way, letting it breath with long, flowing, rhythmic tempos. Then, when Szeryng’s instrument takes flight, it does so eloquently rather than sentimentally or frantically. You’ll find no wistful nostalgia or bravura showboating here, just direct yet passionate playing. In the Adagio, Szeryng’s violin joins the oboe seamlessly on their sweet, lyrical journey; then in the finale, everyone contributes equally to the exhilaration of the moment.
While the interpretation may not provide the esoteric musings or the adrenaline rush of some rival versions, Szeryng and Haitink leave one with the feeling of having heard a tightly knit and well-integrated piece of music, wholly satisfying. This Brahms recording has long been one of my favorites, elegant yet bold, poetic yet vigorous, so it delights me that Newton Classics chose it for rerelease.
Coupled with the Brahms is the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, of Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). It was not the first such concerto Mendelssohn wrote, having composed two others while in his teens before writing this one in 1844. However, he never published the earlier works, so this is the one we all hear, the one that’s so famous. (I know there are recordings of the early violin concertos, but that’s not the point.) I suppose we can thank Mendelssohn’s friend, violinist Ferdinand David, for prompting the composer over the years to write the thing at all. After years of pestering, Mendelssohn completed it and David premiered it in Leipzig in 1845 to an audience that appreciated it in the extreme. Folks have loved it ever since.
Although I hate even to use the term “old-fashioned” to describe Szeryng and Haitink’s collaboration in the Mendelssohn because it tends to conjure up the wrong image in some minds, it is still the best way to characterize the performance. Yes, the sound of the violin and orchestra are rich and resonant and ravishing, yet the interpretation itself is somewhat straightforward and unadorned. It is never ordinary, mind you, and is sometimes quite impassioned, but it sounds just a touch less inspired than a few competing versions like those of Itzhak Perlman and Andre Previn (EMI) or Jascha Heifetz and Charles Munch (RCA). So Szeryng remains recommendable, though not at the very top of the list.
The sound in both works is typical of what Philips was doing with the Concertgebouw in the late Sixties and Seventies. These recordings, made in 1974 (Brahms) and 1977 (Mendelssohn) feature a big, spacious, concert-hall acoustic, with a wonderful ambient bloom that makes them sound most realistic. They also display a fine midrange clarity, a wide dynamic range, and at least adequate if not quite exemplary high treble and deep bass. If there is any minor issue, it is that the upper midrange and lower treble can be a bit more forward in the Brahms than one may like, which is fine for the solo violin, giving it an extra sheen, but makes massed strings seem a bit overbright. Nevertheless, it’s a small matter when the rest of the sonics are so persuasive.