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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

  • Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 77 (cadenza by Vengerov)
  • Sonata for Violin & Piano #3 in D minor, Op. 108
Maxim Vengerov, violin
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Teldec 0630-17144-2 61:52 DDD
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The Concerto was recorded live at Chicago's Symphony Hall in October 1997. The Sonata was recorded in October 1998. Recording producer: Freidemann Engelbrecht. The violin used by Mr. Vengerov is by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona c. 1723, ex Kiesewetter.

Maxim Vengerov is a talented and thoroughly modern performer. In this recording he takes on one of the landmarks of the 19th-century Romantic repertoire.

This Brahms Concerto opens in stately fashion, measured and careful. The violin's entrance is brisk, raising hopes of more excitement to follow. But the conductor manages to keep a tight rein on the proceedings. A range of moderate to slow tempos are maintained throughout the performance, which is one of the longest on record.

In general, Vengerov plays with great precision but little warmth; instead he displays a steely brilliance. He often sounds hurried even when he is not playing fast. Barenboim seems to be holding back the tempo whereas the soloist seems to want to go faster. In the second movement, the combination of a slow tempo and very smooth playing from both soloist and orchestra results in a mood that borders on the soporific. By the end of it I was so relaxed that the aggressive opening of the third movement came as something of a shock.

Vengerov's tone recalls that of the young Heifetz: it is precise and intense, with little of what now would be considered Romantic excess. In fact, Vengerov gives the piece a Nordic, Sibelian sound, which is unusual and unexpected for Brahms.

The soloist plays his own cadenza, which is simple and unadventurous, never going far from the motifs in the score.

Overall, Vengerov's interpretation is thoughtful, considered, and deliberate. Its appeal is subtle, not very exciting on the surface but complex, refined, and artful. Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony contribute a firm foundation, not as driven as Reiner (with Heifetz) but not plodding either.

The whole thing is very sleek and modern-sounding. The recorded sound is clear and detailed, instruments are well located and represented. The liner notes indicate that this was taped "live," but there is absolutely no audible sign of an audience.

Many of the same comments regarding Vengerov also apply to the Sonata, recorded a year later in the studio. Here the violin sounds sweeter, and there is more involvement and risk-taking on the part of both performers. Barenboim again provides solid backing, but this time he seems to enjoy what he's doing and does not make it sound so serious. His keyboard playing is for the most part delicate and controlled. The impressive variety of tone colors and effects tell of his years as a keyboard soloist.

Vengerov too produces a remarkably wide range of timbres from his extraordinary instrument. This range is all the more apparent when he does not need to compete with a full orchestra. And in the Sonata Vengerov is able to exploit the lower ranges of his instrument more effectively than in the Concerto.

Tempos in the Sonata are for the most part moderate and relaxed. The finale is spirited and (dare I say?) passionate. This contrast is especially effective because of the restrained approach to the rest of the piece.

Don't be put off by the slightly menacing cover photo. This is serious, honest, and reliable music-making.

Copyright © 1999, Paul Geffen