There are certain artists whose work becomes an inextricable part of one’s life, whether it be a writer, a painter, or a composer. One develops a sense of the work, sometimes to the point where it all becomes one great work. Brahms is one of those artists in my life — my first experience with Brahms was a scratchy, hand-me-down 78 rpm of the great Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor, when I was about eight or nine — I fell in love. I’ve heard more Brahms than I can sometimes remember until a phrase drifts past and I think, “I know that one.” And sometimes, no matter how well I think I know the artist or a particular piece, I run across a new interpretation that opens new doors for me.
Case in point: the recording by Vadim Repin of both the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, with Truls Mørk on cello in the Double Concerto and Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester for both works.
This last is significant and reportedly was very important for Repin: the Violin Concerto was premiered at the Gewandhaus on January 1, 1879, with the great violinist Joseph Joachim as soloist and Brahms himself conducting. It’s important for another reason: like all great orchestras, the Gewandhaus has over the years developed an individual sound. It’s a warm, transparent sound that adds a new dimension to Brahms’ penchant for “Olympian detachment” (not my description, but it’s not completely off base). Even in its most Olympian moments, this rendition of the Violin Concerto has a humanity, almost an intimacy, that I’ve noted before in Brahms’ chamber works and in the slower, more lyrical passages of his larger orchestral works. Even in the opening measures here, where the tendency toward pomposity might be greatest, the orchestra sings this work, brings a lightness to the execution that is refreshing — and still very much Brahms.
Repin’s violin is the perfect match: crisp, fluid, he sometimes seems to melt into the orchestra and yet maintains a distinct identity, establishing that dialogue that is the hallmark of Brahms’ concertos: the first solo passage springs from the orchestral ground so suddenly and with such power that it takes a moment to realize that this is, indeed, the soloist at work. It’s a pattern he maintains throughout.
One thing that strikes me about the Double Concerto is the importance of the tones and textures — the orchestral colors — that are a part of Brahms’ writing I’ve not discussed much before but that are an integral part of his music. The approach of the two soloists follows Repin’s in the Violin Concerto — both have remarked on the “meeting of the minds” that happened when they began working on this, their first appearance together. Mørk’s first solo passage begins quietly but with enough power to seem a natural progression of the orchestral introduction; the transition to the shared “duet” shortly thereafter is seamless, while the duet itself — well, it’s hard to remember there are two instruments playing, they are so perfectly in sympathy.
And this is, perhaps, one of the fullest representations of Brahms’ idea of the concerto as a “symphony with soloist.” The Double Concerto was his last orchestral work, and while I miss the fire of the Piano Concerto in D Minor or the Symphony No. 1, there is a mature synthesis here that is evident in the writing and which the performers have expressed beautifully.
I’ve mentioned before that the Double Concerto is not my favorite Brahms, but this is one of those recordings that’s going to force me to rethink my opinion, and it really is a matter of the tones and textures of the music: in the hands of Repin, Mørk and the Gewandhaus, this is a rich construction, with those characteristic sounds fully integrated with the long, architectural line, the majesty, and the sometimes surprising lyricism, giving those foundational aspects of Brahms’ music a new set of meanings, to these ears at least.
And so even if it’s an artist whose work you know and love, it behooves you to pay attention to a new take on it. Trust me on that one.
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2008)