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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Violin Concerto

  • Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1879)
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
EMI 66992
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Some years ago I had a student in my class who played violin. He was an excellent player, leading not only the school orchestra but the Toledo Youth Orchestra as well. He once told me that he was convinced that Perlman had "sold his legs to the devil so he could play so well." Certainly Perlman is a prime candidate for 'violinist of the century' and certainly I prefer his playing to Heifetz.

This release is a significant improvement over the previous CD and I would go so far as to maintain that it is better than the LP. Giulini and the Chicago offer a burnished sound, an autumnal quality that breathes through the performance. Perlman is almost perfect, his tone is deep and rich. In fact, this release has so much going for it that anyone who purchases it will not be disappointed. It is certainly better than Kremer and Karajan. That recording also uses EMI's ART process, but the sound is thinner and Karjan's interpretation is too Olympic (this has had several CD incarnations and I am not sure what the latest couplings might be). Still, after several listens to Perlman, I kept feeling that something was missing. Then I pulled out Milstein and Fistoulari with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI 67021). If the great is the enemy of the very good, then Perlman is very good. Milstein brings more music out of the piece, there is more passion, an earthy texture to the playing. Fistoulari and the Philharmonia match Giulini and Chicago in every department and surpass them in many. In fact, it is the passionate partnership that places the older recording well ahead of Perlman and Giulini. Milstein uses his own cadenzas while Perlman uses Joachim's and while that is not necessarily good or bad, the fact that Milstein loved the music so much that he went to the trouble to write his own cadenzas means something.

While at it I also gave a listen to the recent release with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic on DG 457075. Here we have a case where Mutter is playing a different piece than is Masur. Technically they are playing the same score, but Masur is beating time, directing traffic while Mutter is playing her heart out. Hers is perhaps the most passionate solo playing of the four I have mentioned, but the thing falls apart because her partner can't dance.

Some years ago I watched a PBS special with Perlman. At one point he was playing the violin while watching a baseball game on television. It was kind of amazing to hear how well he played while doing something else. To be honest, I get that same feeling while listening to this recording. It is damn good, but it seems like the last ounce of feeling is left out. It is almost like he is on automatic pilot. I'd recommend the Perlman/Giulini recording with the caveat that you should also hear Milstein. (I have also seen the Milstein recording coupled with a Beethoven Violin Concerto, my recording has an okay Brahms 3rd coupling. Takes your choice.)

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II