This is not only one of the best sounding violin and orchestra recordings ever made, but the entire concept is so smart, so well executed, and so thoughtfully planned that even if it were not so musically stupendous it still would be worthy of your attention. As it is, this is one of those rare productions in which absolutely everything goes right. Consider, for example, the problems attendant upon releasing yet another recording of the Brahms Concerto. You have a small independent label with excellent musical credentials but limited resources, a soloist of great musical gifts (Rachel Barton’s previous discs have all been top-notch) but who isn’t a “big name”, and a work that virtually every other violinist with access to a microphone has recorded, sometimes more than once. Given the fact that on musical evidence Barton’s Brahms certainly deserves to be heard, what’s a label to do?
First, secure the services of a world-class orchestra under a fine conductor (Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony and Chicago’s Grant Park Festival, fills that bill nicely). Amazing, isn’t it, that when major labels are screaming about how they can’t afford to record major American orchestras Cedille has found the resources to do just that? Second, instead of simply offering the Brahms, you find an interesting coupling. And let’s not kid ourselves: Joseph Joachim’s Hungarian Concerto isn’t just an “interesting coupling”; it is the Holy Grail of Romantic violin concertos, a work so lengthy (47-plus minutes, about the same as the Elgar concerto), so difficult, yet so deliberately symphonic and, in a sense, anti-virtuoso in conception that it has never once received even a merely adequate recording. Take that coupling, play it to a fare-thee-well (demonstrating once and for all that the work is indeed a brilliant and neglected masterpiece), and then toss in an equally fine Brahms Concerto, all offered at a two-for-one price. If that isn’t a recipe for success, then nothing is.
Indeed, Joachim’s youthful Hungarian Concerto is so beautiful and full of life, its Gypsy-tinged melodies so entrancing, that only its inordinate difficulty accounts for its rarity. In concert it would be a show-stopper, and Rachel Barton has its full measure. The heavily symphonic first movement requires the soloist to engage in genuine chamber-music dialog with the orchestra, especially the principal winds. Joachim’s orchestration must stand with the finest ever achieved in a concerto; there are no dead spots and no balance problems as long as the soloist has the taste and musicianship to know when to cede the spotlight and when to take command.
Take the remarkable cadenza as a typical example: there’s no barnstorming sawing and scraping, but instead a densely flowing river of lyricism joined now and then by solo flute and oboe. It’s one of the most purely gorgeous passages ever written for the violin, and Barton plays it for all it’s worth (and finishes up with some devastating descending chromatic octaves that actually sound like musical notes and not a rusty hinge).
The slow movement features another very attractive principal theme, and when it returns at the movement’s conclusion in the cellos, decorated by garlands of ornamentation from the soloist, the result sounds like some lost work of Dvorák at his most melodically characterful. Barton’s electrifying attack on the finale, a dazzling “Rondo from hell” with a whiplash perpetual motion principal subject, sets the seal on this remarkable performance. Her double-stops (and there are tons of them: check out from 2:30 into the movement) are as sweetly tuned and richly voiced as her legato is smooth and her sense of rhythm acute. Even after this long work I wouldn’t be surprised if you went right back and played the finale over again. It’s that much fun.
The word that most succinctly sums up Barton’s Brahms is “aristocratic”. Among recent recordings, she plays Milstein to Hilary Hahn’s Heifetz. The timings are identical to Perlman and Giulini’s celebrated performance with this same orchestra, but for my money Barton achieves an even finer balance between poise and virtuosity (and shows far greater dynamic sensitivity, especially in the finale). With opening-movement tempos relaxed but never slack, Barton’s warm, round sound allows her to really dig into the music where necessary (witness that famous fanfare-like motive, or Joachim’s first-movement cadenza)–but she never emits a raw or unlovely note. The second movement, with a gorgeous oboe solo at the start, is just heavenly, and the finale reveals plenty of high-spirited energy but also numerous delightfully phrased touches in its various episodes. At the very end Barton and conductor Kalmar produce a wind-down coda perfect in its timing and wit. She even includes her own eminently musical and enjoyable cadenza on a separate track. Simply jump ahead when the orchestra stops (the balance of the coda is also included, so you don’t have to skip backward to get the ending).
As noted above, the sonics are sensational. The opening of the Brahms, with dark-hued strings answered by the winds like a gleam of sun breaking through the clouds, will take your breath away. Although Barton deserves much of the credit for emitting such attractive sounds, it certainly helps that Cedille’s engineers capture her shining tone with nary a trace of shrillness, even in the highest positions. Barton herself writes an excellent set of notes (surely indebted to Tovey in discussing the Joachim, but none the worse for that), and to put the icing on the cake she plays a 1742 Guarneri “del Gesu” violin, the “ex-Soldat”, selected by Brahms himself for his friend and colleague, violin virtuoso Marie Soldat. Recordings don’t get any better than this. Rachel Barton, conductor Carlos Kalmar, and Cedille deserve your enthusiastic support for putting this project together and executing it with such perfectionist zeal and consummate musicianship. There’s also a lesson here that the whole industry should take to heart: Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it’s OK to make fewer recordings, especially if you make great ones. Astounding! [5/17/2003]