The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

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Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.

Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:

Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.

As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.

The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”

One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.

The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”

The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.

Eight Great Recordings

Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.

Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:

Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony

This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:

Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York

This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:

As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.

Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam

Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic

Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.

David Oistrakh and the French National Radio Orchestra

Few “great recordings” lists are complete without a performance by David Oistrakh. Oistrakh recorded the Brahms Concerto several times. Otto Klemperer conducted this reverberant 1960 studio recording.

Ruggiero Ricci and the Sinfonia of London

This 1991 Ruggiero Ricci CD features sixteen cadenzas including those written by Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Auer, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Adolf Busch, and Nathan Milstein.

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17 Responses to The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

  1. John Goodman April 8, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    Excellent sampling of the Brahms violin concerto recordings with a mix of the mid century masters and new, younger artists. One other I might include is the often forgotten, due to his early death, is Michael Rabin’s recording of the Brahms, not to mention many other fine recordings.

  2. Fred Holtz April 14, 2015 at 11:38 am #

    In my (un)humble opinion one of the best recorded performances is the one by Herman Krebbers (the former !st desk violinist of The Amsterdam Concergebouw Orch.) with Bernard Haitink conducting. (They also did an excellent Beethoven Concerto by the way. Their performances of both are fully competitive with the best of the more celebrated ones and may in fact be better than some!)

  3. Timothy Judd April 14, 2015 at 11:51 am #

    Thank you John and Fred for bringing these great recordings to our attention. Here is Hermann Krebber’s recording:

    Here is Michael Rabin:

  4. John Burke December 4, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    I have david Oistrakh’s performance on 10 1/2 inch 15 ips two track Master Tape, and it is gorgeous.

  5. Mike April 27, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

    Thanks so much for compiling these recordings in one place. I was impressed by your writing. The article was educational and a delight to read. Combined with your musical talents, you are obviously quite the artist.
    When I was 10 years old, I was fortunate enough to be in a repertoire class with Anastasia Jempelis at the Intermountain Suzuki Institute. Her energy was astounding!
    Good luck with your many pursuits, and thanks, again, for the article.

  6. Nick May 22, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    My first exposure to this Brahms was a tv performance. I believe is was by berliner philharmoniker in late 70s or early 80s, by menuhin. I’ve forgotten who is the composer. I believe there is no cd recording of it. Very powerful strokes by menuhin. Henryk’s performance somehow reminded me of that tv performance. I’ve recorded it to a vhs and cassette. I lost both.

  7. Nick May 22, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    My mistake. It was conducted by kurt masur at leipzig with gewandhaus orchestra. Can’t find any cd or vinyl. Only found cassette at amazon and this video

    https://youtu.be/hWPD1pMkaOQ

    • Timothy Judd May 22, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

      Another great Brahms Concerto. Thank you for sharing this performance, Nick.

  8. Dena September 11, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

    Thank you for your work in assembling all these renditions – they are marvelous! In my father’s collection, I came across a burned CD of this Brahms concerto, but I do not know who the artist is. I listened carefully to each of these recordings you have here, but none of them is the one I have. The tempo is noticeably faster than most, but not quite as fast as Heifetz. The Huberman tempo seems just about right, but it definitely is not him. Ideas? I would love to know whose talents I am enjoying!

    • Timothy Judd September 11, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

      It sounds as if you might have an old recording, Dena, but it’s hard to say who it might be. Keep listening and let us know if you discover the soloist.

  9. Dena September 11, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    Found it! It is Nathan Milstein. Definitely my favorite, but I would love to hear what you think of his recording.

    • Timothy Judd September 11, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

      It doesn’t get any better than Milstein. Thank you for adding this, Dena!

  10. Timothy Judd January 2, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

    I received this interesting comment from David Umlauf:

    “I have heard, all of your 8 favorite recordings of the Brahms. Like you, I’m very partial to the Heifitz recording. I’ve also been a long-time fan of Oistrakh, though of his recordings of the major concertos, I actually prefer his read of Beethoven Concerto.

    One that I would add to your list is Leonid Kogan/Kiril Kondarashin from about 1960. There’s an excitement in Kogan’s playing of this that I have always found appealing. To my ear, Kogan and Kondarashin had worked on the concerto, particularly the finale, for a long time, likely with many performances in concert and several “takes” in the recording studio. It is clear from the recording that these musicians knew one another well, enjoyed one another’s company and were both enthusiastic about this piece.

    Back then, as well, recordings were made essentially live(especially in old Soviet recording studios) rather than digitally altered as they often are in more recent programs. So you get the real thing.”

    Here is the excellent Kogan/Kondarashin recording he mentions:

  11. Tamir Moskovitz March 23, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

    Fun site – thanks.

    I always hesitate to say that a recording is the best, but I do feel there are two violin recordings that tower above all. The first is Milstein/Fistoulari/Philharmonia for Brahms Concerto and the second is Szeryng’s first Bach sonatas and partitas set on Columbia.

    IMHO the reason these two surpass all others is the quality and uniqueness of tone the violinist makes in each recording. Milstein’s recording is every bit as exciting as that of Heifetz, but the beauty and individuality of sound Milstein makes is beyond human.

    Same goes for Szeryng and his Bach on tone – matchless beauty and distinctiveness.

  12. Bira Rabushka August 19, 2017 at 11:58 am #

    The last time I heard Sara Chang play was when she was 9 yeas old! When it was announced that she was about tp play Ithe Brahms I thought oh I wonder what happened to her! and how old is she now? This is most exception playing!!! beautiful sound, musicality and impeccable technique. I looked for the recording and could not find it. If you know anything about it please let me know!!!! I am a professional violinist and have heard and played the Brahms many times This was an overwhelming experience!!!! .Bira Rabushka

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  1. Brahms’ First Symphony: Walking in the Footsteps of a Giant | The Listeners' Club - May 8, 2017

    […] territory. Solos for the oboe and violin anticipate the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Instead of a scherzo, as Beethoven would have written, the third movement is an […]

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