A genius emerging from the shadow of Beethoven

Brahms - balance and contrasts. © Charles Thibo
Brahms – balance and contrasts. © Charles Thibo

Balance. Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 is perfectly balanced. Solo parts and orchestral parts. Elegance and vigour. Joy and exasperation. Tranquility and loudness. Zen-like flows and fast paced accents. You know how excited I get each time I listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (op. 61). It was written in D major too, but 72 years earlier (1806). Brahms’ only violin concerto brings me close to that state of mind. And I heard it yesterday at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg, performed by Leonidas Kavakos and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg. It was fantastic!

An awesome Leonidas Kavakos

The OPL rolled out a warm, welcoming sound carpet on which the Greek violinist worked out with awesome precision and delicacy the nuances of and the contrasts in Brahms’ composition. Kavakos created a perfect flow while playing the more lyrical parts and mastered the harsher, dramatic parts with dexterity: utmost expressive power without succumbing to vulgarity or brutality. I was truly amazed! And the audience held its breath without anyone coughing. Wow!

Brahms dedicated the piece to the violinist Joseph Joachim, the very same violinist who made Beethoven’s violin concert popular. The work was performed for the first time in 1879 in Leipzig. Brahms conducted the piece himself, and the solo part was played by Joachim, who had insisted that the concert should be opened by Beethoven’s violin concert. Apparently Brahms complained that this would be a little too much of D major for one evening, but surrendered to Joachim’s plan.

Feedback from a friend and top violinist

Joachim was deeply involved in the compositional process. When Brahms started to write down the first bars during the summer of 1878, he wrote to his friend: “I would be very happy, if you could say a word or two, and comment like: too difficult, too challenging, impossible.” Indeed, the piece requires advanced technical skills from the violinist, says the contemporary German violinist Isabelle Faust in the notes to her recording of the piece. “Difficult for anyone with smaller hands than mine”, replied Joachim a few days later about bar 217. But Brahms would not change anything.

The premiere was half a success. While the audience seemed satisfied, criticism from the professional side was inevitable. The violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate acidly remarked he would not perform a concert where the solo violinist would stand around idly (in the second movement) while the oboe would show off. Introducing the second movement through the oboe, echoed later by the solo violin – what a stroke of genius! Kavakos didn’t mind standing by.

Brahms himself was wondering whether the piece would be good enough to have the score printed. If he had known that the piece would remain popular more than 100 years later, he certainly would not have doubted about its quality.

Meeting the Schumanns

Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, but spent most of his musical career in Vienna. In 1840, he took his first piano lessons, and in 1843 – at the age of ten – he first performed before a selected audience. Teaching in composition followed, with an emphasis on Beethoven’s works. Many years later, all over Europe critics and musicians would agree that Brahms was the legitimate successor of Beethoven.

During the summer of 1846, Brahms earns his first money as a musician performing in bars in Hamburg. In 1847, he starts to lead a male choir and in 1853, his pianist career takes off with concerts all over Germany. In September, he meets Robert and Clara Schumann. The three become friends and Brahms would later fall in love with Clara. However, both agreed to destroy the letters they wrote each other and whether Clara Schumann had an affair with Brahms is not know. And I am not sure that we have a right to know… I prefer to believe that music had created a bond between the two that would transcend carnal desire.

Touring Europe as a pianist

In 1862, having failed to become the conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Concerts, Brahms moves to Vienna to lead the choir of the Wiener Singakademie. Concert tours take him to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Hungarian part of the Habsburg Empire. In 1877, he fails to be accepted as the new musical director of the city of Düsseldorf.

The writing of the violin concerto coincides with a trip to Italy (April 1878). The same year he fails to be accepted as the new Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The successive failures to secure leading posts in the music business were compensated by growing fame, mirrored by many more concerts in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Hungary. And, instead of losing himself in bitterness and revenge, he encouraged young composers like Anton Dvorak or Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Brahms was a remarkable man I am only beginning to discover. Symphonies, piano concerts, choral works, chamber music – there is so much more beautiful music from Brahms to listen to. Aimez-vous Brahms? Oh, oui!

Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major has been recorded by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann and Lisa Batiashvili along with 3 Romances written by Clara Schumann, performed by Lisa Batiashvili (violin) and Alice Sara Ott (piano).

© Charles Thibo

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2 thoughts on “A genius emerging from the shadow of Beethoven”

  1. Ah yes, Brahms Violin concerto. Love it! And if Kavakos played as well as he did on his recording with Chailly, I’m quite jealous of your experience.

    My currently favorite versions are Isabelle Faust that you mention above (https://musicophilesblog.com/2015/07/24/isabelle-faust-and-brahms-just-magical/) and Janine Jansen’s very recording is also outstanding (https://musicophilesblog.com/2016/01/25/how-many-versions-of-brahms-violin-concerto-does-one-need/).

    However, I can also very much support your recommendations of Batiashvili. We are lucky to be spoilt in choice here for this masterpiece.

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