The subject of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 77) is fitting because we are talking about a work that is respected, which is one thing, but also loved, which is more.  I had some special times with the Brahms Violin Concerto, even some special bad times, but I always come back to it.  A favorite work, perhaps sometimes a puzzling one, it is fascinating to me.  I have never tired of it, even after so many auditions in the last 57 years, and today I wonder why that is so.

Of course, I do understand that some familiarity with an item of the standard repertory is nothing out of the ordinary, by definition, but I never felt that the piece was anything but extraordinary.  As I expanded my access to it, I only liked it better and better.  It is a piece full of character, and perhaps not everything that can be legitimately said about it has yet been iterated.  That’s on one side.

On the other is not only the Great Episode of Unpleasantness but something else that hardly has a name.  The Brahms Violin Concerto, I believe, is written in such a way that it does not encourage a highly individual approach by the soloist.  Many soloists seem contented with surviving the first movement, and I don’t blame them.  The entrance of the soloist is fraught with peril and stress, and there are other challenges.  The second and third movements resist the individual treatment because Brahms was thinking symphonically and painted in broad strokes.  In contemporary times, only one violinist, as far as I know, has treated the first movement with the freedom, daring, and tonal variety that is possible.  Too many performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto sound alike and generic, and one reason is that Brahms wrote it that way.  He was already thinking of a symphonic, antivirtuosic concerto when he undertook the composition of the Violin Concerto—even something like the four movements of the Second Piano Concerto—and it shows in the second and third movements.  Pablo de Sarasate in his time, and Nathan Milstein in his, were disrespectful of the slow movement, and not without reason.

So there are certain qualities that distinguish the piece and even limit it—and there are some performances that are distinctive and even indelible.  I well remember reading a review of a new recording of the concerto in a issue of High Fidelity back in 1960.  The celebration of Joseph Szigeti’s third recording impressed me, and I ordered a copy for five bucks.  It was the second LP I ever purchased, and I loved it.  The sound on that Mercury disc was superb, and Szigeti, struggling through the piece because of his arthritis, actually incorporated the difficulty into the drama.  Soon after, he withdrew from performance.  How well I remember the cover and the picture of Szigeti’s double violin case!  That was with Herbert Menges and the London Symphony Orchestra.  Little did I know then that I would eventually be led to a copy of Szigeti’s first recording of the piece from 1928, directed by Hamilton Harty.  There was so much packed into all those grooves: tension, beauty, and a magisterial sense of form.  I could not be surprised to learn later that Szigeti had also captured the commanding heights of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto of the same key in 1932, as conducted by Bruno Walter.  Once you hear Szigeti, your sense of the violin is changed.

But not every connection with the Brahms Violin Concerto is pleasant to recall.  I can think of two in particular that were downright creepy.  One of these is well known, being the misuse of the concerto’s third movement in the film There Will Be Blood (2007).  I won’t digress about that movie, but will say only that nothing in the film could justify the ill-chosen music, it was so unfitting.  A deliberated bad mistake, and the same one twice, so dramatically pointed and wasted.  What were they thinking?

The other unpleasantness had to do with an extremely eccentric individual whom I will call Diggings, and whom others on campus called a doofus.  Now Mr. Diggings happened to bring up the Brahms Violin Concerto, telling me that it was his wife’s favorite piece of music.  “She has good taste,” I said, not thinking of husbands.  “It’s a favorite of mine also.”

“I don’t like it,” he said.


“I just don’t like violin concertos.”

“But I thought you told me you like classical music.”

“Except for violin concertos.”

I had already smelled a rat—it was the need or the affectation of Mr. Diggings to create chaos always.

“Well, you don’t have to like what you don’t like, but there is a contextual problem here,” I said.  I explained that, in the first place, there are many concertos for several instruments written and acclaimed for the last three centuries.  In the second place, he disagreed with the considered judgment of Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruch, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Sibelius, Nielsen, Elgar, Prokofiev, Berg, Pfitzner, Walton, and so on.  I did not mention the virtuoso composers such as Paganini, Ernst, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, and the others of their kind.  In other words, he was rejecting the established conventions of musical expression as they were.  This is not usually what we mean when we say that we know and like the standard repertory.  Did he have a problem with standard or with repertory, or was there possibly a thrombosis with music?  But of course all this was in vain, as I knew it would be, and not long after, his poor wife died.  I was careful to avoid all references to the violin in the hallways, and to stay out of any conflict with Mr. Diggings, which is to say, out of any discussion that could possibly be avoided.  The vexation of spirit was excessive, but I never blamed Johannes Brahms for my frustrations.  He was not the problem, but the solution.

But having left behind such concerns and botheration, we can return to contemplating the positive aspects of the remarkable concerto.  And since no one has asked me lately to perform that work, I will continue in my mode of listening to it and thinking about it—but not too often.

Over the decades I extended and improved my experience of the Brahms concerto.  I noticed the charm and the fiddling around in the first recorded version, Fritz Kreisler’s of 1926, conducted by Leo Blech—there was a remake with Barbirolli in the 30’s, but the first is better.  The thing is downright disarming—not what we would say about Szigeti in 1928, with Hamilton Harty.  This is a modern, bristling statement, tensile and intense—there is no crooning here.  Szigeti did not make Kreisler look bad—no one can—but he did make him look out of touch.  Kreisler, who served in the Great War, plays as though it never happened—Szigeti plays with a modern sense of structure, a hip severity that excludes Gemütlichkeit.  These two recordings orbit against and revolve around each other forever, as it seems.

Later on, the 1944 live recording by Bronislaw Huberman is perhaps the most subjective of all performances, and is a challenge to forget or to evaluate.  The 1946 studio recording of Ginette Neveu is more poised and correct, but also bracingly powerful—one of the very best.

The 1950’s were quite an age for violinists—there were so many careers in full bloom.  Heifetz and Milstein and Francescatti and others were busy enough, to be sure.  And the Russians from the Soviet Union came into view.  David Oistrakh recorded the Brahms concerto at least twice, and it suited him down to the ground.  But Leonid Kogan declared that the Brahms was his favorite warhorse.  In 1955, his debut in the West was Parisian—he played three concertos in an evening, the last of which was the Brahms.  There are reasons, not mysteries, why people still talk about these formidable Russians, even though I have heard only one of them referred to as a KGB agent by a musician from Lithuania.  But back in those days, of course, there was a high level of standards and more individuality than we know today.  I would be remiss if I did not mention Christian Ferras and Arthur Grumiaux, who memorably played the Brahms and much else.

Since then there have been many more performances of the Brahms concerto by younger generations from around the world, and some of these have been admirable contributions.  But I think there is one that stands out as a unique treatment, in that the artist found another piece within the one that was written.  Anne-Sophie Mutter had already been conscripted to contribute to the fiasco of the inappropriate use of the Brahms third movement in There Will Be Blood—the credits are given to her recording with Von Karajan.  But earlier on, the lady had addressed the concerto in an unconventional manner in a live performance in New York (1997), conducted by Kurt Masur.  She dedicated the performance to her late husband, recently deceased.

Insofar as I have been able to make myself aware, never before had the concerto been presented in such a fresh manner.  She altered no note values—there was no distortion of the text—but there was a rethinking of the sound and of the bowings.  There were instances of unheard of bow speeds and differentiated pressures and hooded tones never before delivered and, I dare say, never imagined before.  In the first movement she turned the resistant black and white of the work into such a psychedelic hologram of colors and nuances that I would identify Mutter’s second recording not only as the most subjective since Huberman, but also the best since Oistrakh, Neveu, Szigeti, and Kreis ler; and even perhaps the best of all.  Such an imposing achievement as that of Mutter goes a long way toward justifying more than 50 years on the trail of the symphonic concerto that was, for her, sympathetic.