Jerry Dubins, Fanfare magazine
Jack Liebeck’s Sony recording of Brahms’s violin sonatas with Katya Apekisheva was never reviewed here, but it’s a version I’ve mentioned in passing in other reviews as one of my top choices. I see by the Fanfare Archive, however, that Liebeck’s traversal of Bruch’s works for violin and orchestra as part of Hyperion’s Romantic Violin Concerto series has received extensive, positive coverage in these pages.
I have to admit that the first thing that popped into my head on seeing this release was the bitter pill analogy. In this case, the pill is Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, which we’re asked to swallow on the promise that we’ll feel so much better when we get to the Brahms.
Not counting multiple reviews of the same recording, only a handful of versions of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto has been covered in the magazine since its inception. The first to record the work was Louis Krasner in 1952 with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, a dozen years after Krasner had premiered the work in 1940 with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski. That commercial Columbia recording was never reviewed here, but a 1954 live broadcast from Cologne with Krasner and the West German Radio Orchestra under Mitropoulos was reviewed, though not until 1985 on LP (08:4), and again in 1991, same recording, on CD (14:6).
Other entries include a 1989 recording by Michael Erxleben with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Michael Schønwandt; Rolf Schulte with Robert Craft; Kolja Blacher with Markus Stenz and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra; and a fairly recent release by one of the more recognized names in the violin realm, Hilary Hahn, joined by Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
This isn’t to suggest that others haven’t made a stab at Schoenberg’s very difficult to play and not much easier to listen to concerto, though there haven’t been many. With the same Swedish orchestra that Hahn recorded the piece, Isabelle Faust has just recently recorded it with Daniel Harding conducting. And let’s not forget Itzhak Perlman, who recorded the concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. Still, violinists are not lining up to record the work or begging conductors and concert managers to program it for an upcoming concert. It remains a work at the distant edge of the galaxy, acknowledged as an important contribution to the 20th-century repertoire, probably because, and only because, it bears Schoenberg’s name.
He wrote it in 1936, three years after emigrating to the U.S. in the face of the rising Nazi threat. A decade on, after introducing his 12-tone system to the world, his compositions based on it were still met with rejection and outright hostility. So, Schoenberg decided he would try to make his music more palatable by loosening some of the strictures of his 12-tone methodology and by adopting a more tonally oriented melodic construction. Pianist and music scholar Charles Rosen, who authored a definitive study on Schoenberg’s methods and techniques, described the composer’s effort to render tonal that which was, by design, intended to defy tonality, as “mimesis”—i.e., mimicry. But make no mistake, the Violin Concerto is based on a tone row that utilizes all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale.
A year earlier, 1935, Alban Berg had taken a similar approach in his Violin Concerto, but the results, I think most would agree, put ends before means. Berg’s concerto is music first, method second, engaging the listener in a score of often searing emotion and incandescent beauty.
You’d not be wrong to conclude from this that I’m not a fan of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, and I suspect I’m not alone in my lack of appreciation for it. I did purchase the Hahn recording when it came out, but only for her coupling of the Sibelius Concerto, which, as readers know, is a work I can’t resist. Long ago, I also acquired Perlman’s recording of the Schoenberg with Ozawa, but again, it was for the discmate, in Perlman’s case, Berg’s concerto. In terms of disc couplings, Perlman’s Berg makes more sense than Hahn’s Sibelius; and despite Joanna Wyld’s album note claiming that “for Schoenberg, Brahms knitted together his ideas with such coherence that he paved the way for the twelve-tone methods of the Second Viennese School, consisting of Schoenberg himself and his students, Berg, and Webern,” I don’t find Liebeck’s mating of the Schoenberg and the Brahms any more satisfying.
At least Liebeck makes an argument in favor of it though in his contribution to the album note, offering poignant memories of his grandfather’s forced exile from Germany, a fate shared in common with Schoenberg. Granted, it’s an emotional vs. a rational justification, but at least Liebeck makes a case for why he wanted to take up Schoenberg’s concerto in the first place, and what he finds compelling about it.
I’d like to say that Liebeck’s performance of the piece persuades me of its inherent beauty and intrinsic merit, but I can’t. In the end, Liebeck’s effort strikes me as no better or worse at transforming means into ends or method into music that was Perlman’s or Hahn’s. Perhaps another critic more receptive to the work than I am will have something more positive to say in a parallel review.
Now, on to what counts, Liebeck’s entry into the grand sweepstakes of the Brahms Concerto. Will it take first prize, or even second or third, in a field of some 200 contestants? How about 199th? Once again I’d like to say that Liebeck’s performance of the piece persuades me of its inherent beauty and intrinsic merit, but I can’t. Only in this case I’m talking about the beauty and merit of the performance, not the piece.
The first movement tempo is painfully slow and stretched in places to an almost dreamy Adagio. Huge ritards and ridiculous, gestural exaggerations of phrasing and dynamics pervert Brahms’s rhythms and rob the music of forward momentum. It’s Romantic Indulgence with a Capital “I!” I’m not sure that even Mischa Elman took such liberties with the piece, though I never heard him play it in concert, and it seems to be M.I.A. from his discography.
In moments of high drama and excited passagework, Liebeck again distorts written rhythms, chops off and cuts chords short with a machete-like swoop of his bow, and otherwise sounds taxed technically. How he descended from his readings of Brahms’s violin sonatas, which I thought deserving of top billing, to this is beyond my comprehension. If, at this point, it matters to you, Liebeck adds further insult to injury, in my opinion, by choosing to play Kreisler’s over-the-top cadenza instead of the one Joachim worked out with Brahms’s blessing.
I, personally, have not previously heard of conductor Andrew Gourlay, but I can tell you that some of the sounds he elicits from the usually reliable BBC Symphony Orchestra are truly garish and grotesque. I never thought I’d say something like this, but this performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto almost makes me appreciate the Schoenberg. What a disaster!
- Release Date:
- Label: Orchid Classics
- Copyright: ℗© 2020 Orchid Classics
- Total Length: 1:17:11
- ASIN: B0851V46PW
- Customer Reviews: 1 customer rating
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