Brahms: Violin Concerto, Op. 77; Joseph Joachim: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 11

Christian Tetzlaff; Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Dausgaard (Virgin Classics 50210923)

25 March 2008 3 stars

Christian TetzlaffThis coupling of violin concerti by Brahms and Joachim is simultaneously understandable and unforeseen. Both musicians were virtually exact contemporaries and shared a friendship that yielded, amongst other things, the dedication of these works to each other. Yet, despite the rather attractive parallels to be drawn between Joachim's concerto of 1861 and Brahms's evergreen example composed seventeen years later, the limelight has shone ever brighter on the latter work, thus seemingly lengthening the shadow cast over its predecessor. That said, Joachim's concerto has not gone completely without recognition during the decades since its composition. Paul David, writing in the third edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1927), states:

'As a composer Joachim was essentially a follower of Schumann, and his style was developed in close association with his intimate friend, Brahms … Undoubtedly his most important and most successful work is the Hungarian concerto (op. 11), a creation of real grandeur, built up in noble symphonic proportions, which holds a place in the first rank of masterpieces for the violin.'

This is lofty praise indeed, placing Joachim's concerto beside those of Beethoven, Bruch and, of course, Brahms. Though, in truth, it may be a touch overzealous to have made such a claim, the Austro-Hungarian violinist's D-minor Concerto 'In the Hungarian Manner', Op. 11 is not to be taken lightly. Granted, its expansiveness (the first movement alone lasts for twenty-two minutes) at times stretches the limits of Joachim's melodic inventiveness. However, this does little to detract from the composer's burgeoning imagination and resourceful orchestration. Take, for example, the anticipated return of the Ländler-like second subject in the opening Allegro un poco maestoso, deftly executed by the horns with a colourful accompanimental commentary from the solo violin. The ensuing cadenza is nothing short of ethereal, with seamless solos from horn, flue and oboe underpinning the soloist's heartfelt musings.

Joachim's concerto receives an account that fully justifies its place in a programme alongside its more esteemed counterpart. Christian Tetzlaff, the fine young German violinist, captures the dance-like elements of each movement, even if his sound wears a little thin periodically. He provides a cherished rendition of the second-movement Romanze, and his double-stopping in the Finale alla Zingara (of which there is plenty) is brilliantly executed. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra sparkles under the smart direction of Thomas Dausgaard, the horns warranting a particular mention for their fine contribution to the texture.

Tetzlaff's and Dausgaard's tackling of the Brahms concerto is, in relation to the Joachim, a rather lukewarm affair. Whilst there is nothing 'wrong' with this account – indeed, one could argue that the work receives a patrician, polished performance – it fails to stir the emotions, to inspire awe and astonishment. The opening Allegro non troppo, in particular, tends to amble along without any overriding sense of spirit. This tends to emphasise the quasi-diaphanous timbre being produced by Tetzlaff's violin, as well as the adequate but unremarkable accompaniment provided by Dausgaard's DNSO. Curiously, balance is sometimes an issue here, as there were moments when I longed to hear more of the orchestral melody and less of the soloist's often-exquisite but ultimately secondary accompanimental figures. Though there are junctures to be admired in this reading – the hush of Tetzlaff's first-movement cadenza and his soaring, impassioned entry in the central Adagio are two such occasions – a performance of this masterpiece should command so much more than mere admiration.

By William Norris