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Robert Maxham
Fanfare, May 2009

Ilya Kaler, winner of gold medals in the Tchaikovsky and Paganini competitions, has proved himself a strong competitor in the virtuoso repertoire (like Paganini’s concertos and caprices—Naxos 8.550649 and 8.550717, respectively) as well as in the symphonic concertos by Shostakovich—Naxos 8.550814, Tchaikovsky, and Glazunov[‘s arrangement of Souvenir d'un lieu cher], Naxos 8.557690). Now he appears in a logical—but several generations ago, an almost unthinkable—combination of the single violin concertos by Brahms and Schumann—not only because of the combined lengths of the works, which would have prohibited a pairing on LP, but also because of the position of Schumann’s Concerto as a sort of stepchild.

Together with Pietari Inkinen and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kaler adopts a moderate tempo and a massive style in the first movement of Brahms’s Concerto. If the engineers placed Kaler at the forefront, he gave them something worth pushing forward: a big-boned, large-scale though sweet-toned, refined performance of the almost obbligato solo part, a reading that easily maintains its balance with the orchestral forces. But his strong-mindedness doesn’t imply any raw demonstration of power; he can, and does, produce a tone as thick and mellifluous as Brahms’s darker passages demand, especially in the lower registers. His playing, though seldom highly individual, never sounds blandly derivative, either, and he’s as insinuating as he is brilliant in Joachim’s cadenza. The woodwind choir, seemingly weighted in the recorded sound toward the bottom of its register, complements timbrally the somewhat deliberate tempo the soloist and conductor have chosen for the slow movement’s opening; throughout, the violin’s ornamental lines take a leisurely stroll through the thematic material. In the finale, however, Kaler reasserts his primacy, though his manner remains more giocoso than vivace. Not as hard driving as Heifetz’s performances of the work and not as intellectually engaging as Christian Tetzlaff’s recent one (Virgin 502109), Kaler’s rises, especially in the first movement, far above the level of the generic and impersonal.

Yehudi Menuhin, who premiered Schumann’s Concerto in 1937, held it in higher esteem than did either Joseph Joachim or Clara Schumann. Most literature—including program notes—that I’ve encountered during nearly the last five decades, has taken pretty much this tack, though violinists like Menuhin himself, Szeryng, and Kremer have recorded it. Less virtuosic than the Fantasy (of which Kreisler made an arrangement), the Concerto contains passages of symphonic majesty (especially in the first movement’s tuttis) as well as moments of almost languid immobility. Still, its early critics may have been right in finding that it lacks the cohesiveness and intellectual vigor of Brahms’s Concerto, while it hardly seems a virtuoso vehicle, either, cut from the same sturdy cloth as, say, Spohr’s works had been. The violin’s role in many of its filigrees and its songfulness in the slow movement presage the relationship of violin and orchestra in Bruch’s late-Romantic works in the genre, especially his later, less virtuosic ones, such as In memoriam. Inkinen provides a noble reading of the first movement, to which Kaler brings the same general strong-mindedness he evidenced in Brahms’s work. In the slow movement, Kaler’s touching cantabile weaves beguilingly around the orchestral accompaniment. The finale, a polonaise (many concertos from the time of Viotti and Spohr, sported finales alla polacca), allows the violin a leadership role, though the music never actually rises, or seemingly even aspires, to virtuosic brilliance. Although, and perhaps because, Schumann’s Concerto doesn’t display the understanding (derived either from first-hand knowledge or through collaboration) that later non-violinists like Bruch, and, in the 20th century, Walton, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich evidenced, it represents a challenge to both soloists and conductors (Busoni’s Concerto, with its displays of technique, nevertheless makes overall a similar impression). In that effort, Kaler and Inkinen fall perhaps a bit below Menuhin’s early, impassioned advocacy (on Naxos 8.110966, with Barbirolli in 1938; Gidon Kremer took the finale at a deliberate tempo that disqualifies his reading for many listeners). In the final pages, the orchestra tends to swallow the soloist’s passagework, and that’s less likely the fault of soloist, conductor, or engineers, than of the composer.

Kaler faces challenges from so many of his eminent colleagues in Brahms’s Concerto, though he meets them, especially in the first movement, creditably enough that his performance, in spacious recorded sound with soloist and orchestra in a natural balance, represents a safe choice, made more attractive by his nearly convincing account of Schumann’s Concerto. Recommended.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Ilya Kaler’s new recording of the Brahms concerto on Naxos is eminently recommendable.  When reviewing his recent recording of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto I remarked that Kaler’s performance was one “of elegance as well as brilliance” that “wears it war-horse status lightly, impressing itself upon the listener by virtue of its freshness and natural feeling”.  Those comments are equally applicable to this recording. 

Kaler’s conception of Brahms’ score is one that rejoices in its beauties.  Ably supported by the warm sounds exhaled by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kaler’s violin sings with a golden tone and sweetly inflected phrasing.  He takes his time over the first movement, but maintains his rhythmic control and sense of the music’s overall architecture.  In this his performance succeeds where, as Jonathan Woolf points out, Julia Fischer’s similarly conceived account fails.  Kaler also lingers lovingly over the gorgeous slow movement—taking over 10 minutes.  His pacing is more conventional in the Hungarian finale, which smiles more than it swaggers here. 

The coupling of Brahms and Schumann is astute.  Firstly it makes programmatic sense.  Both concertos share the tonality of D—Brahms in the glowing major, Schumann in the dramatic minor.  Both were written for Joachim, and the bond between Schumann and Brahms themselves is as well known as it is complicated. 

Secondly, the coupling is an attractive addition to the Naxos catalogue.  It complements an earlier disc (Naxos 8.550938), on which Kaler joins cellist Maria Kliegel in Brahms’ double concerto, offered as a coupling for Kliegel’s performance of the Schumann cello concerto.  Buy these two discs, and you have the complete Schumann and Brahms string concertos at one fell swoop. 

The coupling of the Schumann and Brahms concertos is also fairly unusual in the broader catalogue.  While recordings of the Brahms proliferate, there are few recordings of the Schumann concerto and when they do appear they tend to be lumped together with more Schumann…Schumann wrote his violin concerto very quickly in the autumn of 1853.  Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann had reservations about the piece.  In happier times Schumann would probably have revised the piece, but the rapid decline in his mental health prevented this and the score languished unplayed and unknown until the 1930s.  It is an attractive piece, constructed along classical lines, and deserves more attention and respect than it is usually accorded.  The first movement has a symphonic seriousness and integrity, contrasting the wild, surging argument of its first subject with a gentle, sensitive second subject.  The central movement is quietly beautiful.  The finale, in the form of a polonaise and with prominent wind writing, brings the concerto dancing to a close. 

…The balance favours the violin in both concertos, but there is air enough around the soloist, and the warm Lighthouse Concert Hall acoustic gives the orchestral sound a lovely glow.  Listening through earphones can be disconcerting in the Schumann where either Kaler's or the conductor’s breathing is quite prominent.  I did not notice this so much when listening through speakers. 

Keith Anderson's liner-notes live up to his usual high standard, but gloss over the circumstances of the Schumann concerto's rediscovery by Joachim's great-niece and avoid entirely discussion of the political wrangling over the concerto's premiere performances. 

Another wonderful disc from Ilya Kaler and a bargain of the month., October 2008

Brahms’ Violin Concerto is an emotional success in the excellent new Naxos recording featuring violinist Ilya Kaler. Kaler is an exceptionally skilled player, never seeming to reach for or barely manage passages that can (and do) trip up other performers; in this respect, in some ways, Kaler’s playing is reminiscent of that of Jascha Heifetz. But Kaler also brings warmth to his performances – the huge first movement of the Brahms concerto simply grows and grows, becoming increasingly intense, while the Adagio offers respite while at the same time offering beauty and intimacy. Kaler cuts loose in the finale, handling the dance rhythms with aplomb and providing the work with a rousing conclusion. Pietari Inkinen’s conducting of the Bournemouth Symphony is mostly workmanlike: Inkinen is clearly content to have the orchestra take a back seat to Kaler, supporting him without ever seeming to come into competition. The approach works, although a greater sense of intensity would have made it work better. Orchestra and soloist do in fact play more effectively off each other in Schumann’s Violin Concerto, a Romantic work as underplayed as the Brahms is overplayed. Schumann’s concerto is poetic rather than supremely virtuosic (although the finale does have its moments); this may explain why it has relatively few advocates among first-rate violinists. But Kaler shows what a top-notch player can do with this music: he does not overwhelm it or blow it out of proportion, nor does he try to put it on the same plane as the later Brahms concerto. Instead, he lets the work unfold naturally, accepting its beauties as well as its limitations, putting his skill at the service of the music rather than trying to inflate it—with the result that the concerto ends up sounding as if other violinists underrate or simply do not fully understand it. Not a great concerto, perhaps, but in Kaler’s interpretation, the Schumann is a far worthier one than it has sometimes been thought to be.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

An uncommonly generous coupling provides a rare opportunity of hearing Schumann’s Violin Concerto, a score of considerable beauty that remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime.

Written in 1853 at a time of happiness in his troubled life, it carried with it the hope that the great violinist Joseph Joachim would premiere the score. In the event, Joachim played through it in a private orchestral rehearsal and expressed many reservations that stood in the way of a public performance. No doubt those would have been addressed, but Schumann shortly afterwards suffered a complete and final mental breakdown. There are passages where the structure could have been tightened, but there is so much joy in the buoyant finale that it more than deserves a place in the concert repertoire. In mood it contrasts sharply with the Brahms concerto which followed twenty-four years later. Where Schumann uses the weight of his orchestra sparingly, and gives the soloist little in the way of overt virtuosity, Brahms was to offer Joachim a showpiece for the instrument that had evaded Schumann. The Russian-born soloist Ilya Kaler takes a lithe and urgent view of the work’s outer movements, while the Bournemouth Symphony under the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen provide a more open texture accompaniment than we normally hear. The result is a fresh and youthful sounding Brahms, the immaculate Kaler heightening the dance quality of the finale while retaining a rapt and intense quality for the slow movement. That feel of freshness pervades his view of the Schumann and brings a nice jauntiness to the finale. The coupling appears elsewhere, but with Naxos’s added clarity of sound, I would place this as the market leader.

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