© James Buswell 2017
Brahms Violin Concerto Op. 77
My earliest performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto were informed only by the traditional edition of the piece which all violinists studied in the middle of the 20th Century. I was mentored by the great pedagogue, Ivan Galamian, who was much concerned with the very real challenges of projecting the solo part over the formidable orchestral writing. He impressed upon me the fact that only the very greatest orchestras were able to play delicately when in an accompanying role with a string soloist, and prepared me to “muscle up” a bit when confronted by less sensitive musical collaborators.
At the time, I was hardly aware that my teacher’s point of view was perhaps colored by what was already termed in the mid-nineteenth century, the “Franco-Belgian School” of violin playing. I had no idea that this school represented somewhat alternative stylistic convictions, and a very different technical methodology to what was espoused by the earliest exponent of the piece, the great Hungarian/German violinist, Joseph Joachim.
In 1979, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. published a magnificent Facsimile of the Holograph Score of the Concerto. This inspired me to relearn the concerto, endeavoring to incorporate some of the new perspectives that this edition afforded. Such a document is always instructive in reminding us that great works of art hardly come full-blown from the heads of the composers. They are, as our 21st Century culture loves to repeat ad nauseum, “a process!” in which the composer’s ideas do in fact evolve, and are greatly stimulated and affected by the opinions and reactions of the principal collaborator who was, in this case, Joseph Joachim. The special relationship between the two musicians is somewhat more carefully documented for posterity than most such collaborations.
From this score’s multiple colors and penmanships, one can observe the special interactions between composer and violinist, which finally resulted in a composite reading of the solo part. Brahms did earnestly wish for Joachim to instruct him in what initial ideas might be awkward or “un-violinistic” in the hands of the master virtuoso. But then, he did not follow all of Joachim’s proposals. One can easily envision Brahms writing, seated at the keyboard, imagining vividly, yet not exactly able to feel in his bones, the act of playing a violin. Then one also imagines Joachim first addressing the inspirations of Brahms fiddle in hand, eager to make the music sing with all of its very evident passion and power. This colorful manuscript transformed the way I both heard and played the piece in the middle of my own performing career.
Then in 2006, the long-awaited Bärenreiter edition of the Concerto came out. The eminent musicologist, Clive Brown, was in charge of this edition, and he wrote a very erudite Preface to the piece, which bravely treated a broad range of subjects pertaining to matters of performance practice, with Joachim most naturally front and center. As I read the preface with utmost care, I was struck by the fact that this was written by an extremely knowledgeable scholar who does not happen to be a virtuoso violinist. It is not surprising that he brings out many fascinating historical facts which illuminate how one reads and hears the music of Brahms, and which tell of the contrasting traditions of violin playing that prevailed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
However, it is very hard to be completely objective in evaluating matters of vibrato, articulation, rubato, portamento, and management of the bow. The general tenor of his perspectives holds true in the broadest sense, but many details that he attempts to set forth seem to me to be half-truths. One example of this short-coming would be his citation of the martelé stroke at the point of the bow as being, “the traditional bowstroke for obtaining sharp staccato….” He goes on to propose that … “martelé would have been much more prominently employed, and many passages that are now played with a bounced or lifted stroke in the lower half of the bow, would undoubtedly have been executed by Joachim and his contemporaries in the upper half of the bow….”
My chief question here would be to ask exactly what is meant by the word, “traditional.” His connection of Joachim with what he terms the “German adherents of the Viotti School” is open for debate, and the earlier German traditions of bow use seemed to allow the bow to come off of the string with much more regularity. It was the French who fell in love with the upper half of the bow, and who developed and labeled little categories for bow strokes of all kinds. Some of these principles may indeed have influenced Joachim. In any case, this sort of confusion is always born of the very modern habit of looking at subjects such as these from a more technical perspective, rather than thinking of the acoustical realities of performance as it has evolved down through the years, not to mention the emotional language of various cultures, as each performer must perforce create a bond of expression and taste with the audience for whom one is attempting to present a timeless masterpiece in the somewhat universal language of music.
At a later point in this Preface, a similar mindset causes Mr. Brown to contrast simplistically the use of open strings with the evolving habit of more continuous vibrato in string playing. The short presentation on vibrato presents commonly held fundamental verities of historical perspective, but is hardly sufficiently nuanced to get closer to the heart of the matter. The evolution of vibrato, both as an expressive device, and as an acoustical aid was hardly a linear event. The use of vibrato was undoubtedly highly varied in the 19th century, as it is even more so in the 21st.
Having read the Preface to the Bärenreiter edition with many mixed feelings, I was then truly stunned to discover that there were two violin parts in this new edition, both of them seen exclusively through the eyes of Joachim. Clearly Mr. Brown does not consider the manuscript to be of very great significance. I gather that it is his point of view that since Brahms “signed off on” the first printed edition of the piece, any of his earlier impulses are not worthy to be considered.
I then compared carefully the two violin parts offered in the new edition, and was even more astonished as to how very little they did in fact differ one from the other, in spite of the fact that they were issued almost a quarter-of-a-century apart. It would appear that the major differences are metronome markings and fingerings. Bowing changes are for the most part quite trivial. As for the fingerings, they are largely the same as essentially every violin player uses today, with a few interesting exceptions. Chief among these would be a marked but tasteful inclination to portamento, which once again I see not as a technique in any real sense of the word, but rather as an attempt at a more vocal presentation of the musical line. Then there is the obvious fact that Joachim was not as comfortable with what we now call “extension fingerings” as we are today. In short, the later Joachim edition has very little really new to say to us as students of this great work. A violin part that attempted to set forth some of Brahms’ original proposals about the piece, before Joachim became involved in the creative process, would, I would think, have been of much greater interest to the general public.
Since I have chosen to be somewhat critical of Mr. Brown’s thoughts expressed in his preface, it is only fair that I offer a somewhat more detailed exposition of alternative points of view. I will proceed back to forward, beginning with what I consider to be the most crucial subject — “Tempo, Rhythm and Rubato.”
In the second paragraph of his essay on this subject, Mr. Brown proposes, “Joachim’s metronome marks of 1905 are probably a reliable guide to the tempo at which he himself performed the concerto.” As a person who has stood on many stages and performed this concerto, I would sincerely doubt this assertion. But the primary issue here is a consideration of under what circumstances Mr. Joachim arrived at the metronome markings that he proposed, and just how strictly he expected the resultant tempi to be applied in live performance.
In the 21st century, any performer is able to listen to a recording of his or her performance, and from it to deduce the range of tempi at which he or she played a given movement in that particular performance. I believe that it is more likely that Mr. Joachim, if asked to produce a metronomic figure corresponding to the tempo of a movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, very likely considered primarily the first few measures of the piece, and perhaps sung a tempo that he considered to be appropriate without instrument in hand, not to mention without an orchestra on stage. Many composers have historically arrived at astonishingly fast tempi when asked similar abstract questions, and then wondered incredulously why the performers of their compositions are attempting to play such fast tempi. When virtual reality becomes acoustical and instrumental reality, a very different tempo is likely to obtain.
In the following paragraphs of Mr. Brown’s preface, he expands upon the use of rubato in the late 19th century in general, and in the playing of Mr. Joachim in particular. All of this is infinitely more helpful and pertinent to performance practice than any raw metronome marking.
It is very difficult to attempt to describe the rubati of any eloquent artist. Not surprisingly, Mr. Brown indicates that Joachim’s rubati were subtle and never exaggerated on the one hand. But then he quotes the man as expressing disapproval of those musicians who just play the notes as raw rhythmic data. Clearly Joachim saw music as essentially gestural in its essence, and believed that rhythmic freedom was crucial to being able to declaim the emotional message of the music. This set of priorities make numbers of any kind trivial. A metronomic number can indicate the very general pace of a movement of music, but nothing more than that.
What very likely made Joachim’s rubati seem to be restrained was his ability to recover what the Germans call the “hauptzeitmass” or principal tempo of a movement. Self-indulgence in the use of rubato can often be traced to an inability to remember the central tempo of a movement, and thus, to recover in an orderly manner from excursions that of necessity move the tempo temporarily faster or slower from that central tempo. In a work that is as highly dramatic as the Brahms Violin Concerto, the emotional content of each musical gesture must of necessity affect the tempo, usually in a very subtle way.
When Joachim proposed general tempi for the Brahms Violin Concerto, he would never have imagined that anyone would check to see if that tempo were still being honored from phrase to phrase throughout the piece. In fact, the very fast tempo that he proposed for the first movement does sound very plausible for much of the tutti with which the movement commences. Yet already in the sixth and seventh measures of the movement, any ticking metronome at any tempo would be a major annoyance. The end of the first eight-bar phrase requires a bit of extra time, before the woodwinds lead us in to the transitional second phrase, which in turn plunges us into the highly rhetorical music that follows. As soon as the solo violin enters, the soloist is thrust directly into a cadenza of sorts, to which the orchestra provides very little metric comment. Extreme rhythmic freedom is an integral part of this entire section of the piece, right up to the arrival of the principal theme. Then when that principal theme arrives, it is in very different costume from its initial presentation. Now, it is the calm after the storm, and it would be surprising if it were played at the same tempo as at the beginning of the movement.
The marking of 126 to the quarter for the first movement is indeed considerably faster than it has been played by any violinist in my memory. On the other hand, I have stood on the stage often, waiting for my entrance, and wondering why the conductor is laboring so much over the opening exposition of the orchestra. This initial presentation of the primary musical ideas of the piece can be presented with much more energy and dispatch than has become customary. There are key moments at which the initial impetus of the music needs to be recovered, and both the soloist and the conductor must be eager to do so. Measure 164 is just such a place, as are measures 198, 245, and 332.
The suggested marking of 72 to the eighth for the second movement is not nearly so radical a proposal. Again, there needs to be a great deal of flexibility, especially in the early parts of this movement, to express the musical conversations between the solo voice and the orchestra in particular, and to leave room for the radical changes that occur in the mood of the music. It is important to realize that the markings of Brahms in measures 54-56, “poco a poco più largamente,” do in fact indicate a slight change of tempo. This is self-evident because of the marking, “in Tempo Primo” in measure 78.
As for the proposal of 104 to the quarter for the final movement, two elements of this Allegro make such a marking seem very hurried. First of all, the piece is clearly inspired by Slavonic and Romany music, with its pride and swagger. Secondly, it is replete with double stopping in the solo part and very acrobatic maneuvers on the fingerboard, all of which are meant to be exceedingly virtuoso in character, relying more upon sonority and grandeur, rather than sheer velocity, to make its winsome impression.
I have found that the auxiliary markings of a composer at the outset of a movement are sometimes even more meaningful than the simple tempo indications. To be sure, the last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto is marked generically, “Allegro.” But after that word, Brahms has instructed that it be not only, “non troppo vivace,” but also, “giocoso!” A joyful performance cannot be streamlined. Rather, the acoustic of the hall, and the character of the orchestral playing must be taken into account in choosing a truly exuberant tempo. It is also of some significance that Brahms wrote, “non troppo,” after the initial, “Allegro,” of the first movement. Joachim’s proposed metronome marking does seem to be, “troppo.”
The four paragraphs that Mr. Brown devotes to a discussion of portamenti are very illuminating, and possibly quite surprising to many modern violinists. Anyone who has listened to recordings of masters of the early 20th century cannot be greatly surprised, however. The musicologist goes to some pains to categorize the various kinds of portamenti both digitally and nationalistically — a pursuit that is not without some legitimacy, while at the same time presenting a somewhat artificial perspective.
What does surprise me is the fact that the author chooses not to bring to the fore the principal raison d’être for this sort of practice. The finest string players, crossing over from the end of the 19th to deep into the 20th centuries, were first and foremost preoccupied with attempting to imitate the sounds of the greatest singers who spoke the same classical musical language. I would propose that the essential use of portamento has always been with the intention of creating a more vocal line. That the condiment sometimes has suffered from mannered over-use is undeniable. But what Mr. Brown refers to as the “French” portamento, or a slide executed between two different fingers, very likely originated as an awkward attempt by an insecure left hand to make a more natural “liaison” between notes of a phrase. Thereafter, it might have found favor in some contexts as having a more poignant or pathetic emotional implication. In dealing with just such musical mannerisms, it is always tempting, but never sufficient, just to label the different species of the genre, either technically or nationalistically. It is difficult to surmise just how, when, or where such habits arose, and even more difficult to guess at the meanings that they had for either the performer or the listener. Because of these difficulties, it is a very common post-modern posture simply to dispose of all such considerations in the massive receptacle of “taste” — be it personal, cultural, or technical. Unfortunately, this cavalier attitude fails either to illuminate from a historical perspective, or to explore possible significances for modern ears. Therefore, I do appreciate Mr. Brown’s conscientious spirit in exploring such matters as portamento. I do suggest that we all can dig a bit deeper, and must never lose sight of the essential vocal impulses that gave rise to the mannerism.
Any attempts to grasp the crooked paths of the evolution of the technique that we call, “vibrato,” is bound to stir up major controversy. This is hardly a suitable place to go very deeply into this hornet’s nest. I would like only to emphasize the extremely interactive nature of all of the issues with which we have been dealing, and to stress how very much the use of vibrato affects everything — tempo, rubato, portamento, and all of the techniques of bow usage.
Johannes Brahms was not alone in greatly pushing the envelope of sonority, and in challenging a string soloist to make heroic sounds of far greater intensity than were natural to any of the instruments of the string family prior to the end of the 19th century. In fact, in the Brahms Double Concerto for Solo Violin and Cello, the composer was most notorious for creating a fully robust symphonic sound from the orchestra, while expecting both of the soloists to act as heroic and highly projected voices that rise in combat with the orchestra, and are triumphant! It requires an enormous amount of skill and strength both physical and emotional from all executants to make this plausible, and more than a little amiable credulity on the part of the audience.
There is no doubt in my mind that the need for a larger and more projecting sonority from the stringed instruments played a very major role in the increasing use of vibrato, as concert venues became larger and as orchestras also increased in both size and brilliance. This in no way marginalizes the considerations brought forward by Mr. Brown that dwell more upon issues of personal and stylistic taste. However, it is obvious to me that the fast tempi that Mr. Joachim did propose would have operated more naturally in a friendly acoustical environment, with a somewhat smaller orchestra, and with minimal amounts of vibrato from all participants, including the soloist.
m. 90: It would appear that the dot on the second note (e) was a later addition.
mm. 92-97: Here can be found an excellent example of notes with dots that might have been played in any part of the bow. To presume that they were thought of as “martelé” in the French style and therefore played close to the tip is to my mind by no means self-evident. The customs of the time are of somewhat less interest to me than the timeless issues of sonority and projection in a large space. When the strokes are played in the upper half of the bow, the bow does not leave the string, but rather extinguishes the sound of the notes directly. When played in the lower-middle of the bow with a more brushed stroke, the notes can be played shorter or longer according to taste. But the crucial issue is that the strings are allowed to continue to ring after the bow has elevated off the string. The resonance is superior regardless of the actual length of the stroke. With the bowing proposed, I play measure 92 in the middle of the bow, and measure 93 (and measure 96) closer to, but by no means at the frog.
Measure 97 is a fine example of a stroke that some of us string players are fond of calling, “onff!” Such a measure defies the French habit of codifying “strokes.” If a pianist (like Brahms) were to play such 16th notes, he would never imagine playing them legato. A pianist has no problem playing such passages with healthy articulation, without labeling them as either “staccato” or “legato.” My desire is to emulate this on a stringed instrument. The fact that the composer failed to provide dots by no means implies that the bow should categorically NOT leave the string. On the other hand, for the passage to sound in any way “spiccato” would also be to my mind inappropriate. To call the stroke, “détaché,” in the original meaning of the term is entirely possible. However it is clear that the term as used in string pedagogy in the 20th century took on quite a different meaning.
m. 97: Notice that the slur on the first two notes is from Joachim, and was likely thought of more as a bowing than as a request for legato. I am convinced that on the piano, Brahms would have played these two notes with the same stroke as the rest of the phrase. When I mark a double bow stroke (up-up or down-down) I intend for it to be understood exclusively as a mechanical bowing. A written slur I imagine to indicate a legato sonority.
From the second beat of measure 102, Joachim changed Brahms’ notation, striking out “A’s” in favor of double “D’s” for seven beats. It can easily be argued that this facilitates string crossing and promotes bow cleanliness with minimal loss of harmonic potency. Obviously, Brahms agreed with this assessment and accepted Joachim’s alteration. I am wondering, however, whether such an alteration would likely be proposed today in solo works that much more severely challenge traditional string techniques. Making something relatively more comfortable on the instrument was a considerably greater priority to the virtuosi of the 19th century than it would be to present-day violinists. I favor publishing such alternative readings of a passage such as this, in order that present day artists may choose which one they prefer to play. To my ear, the addition of the additional “A’s” in each broken chord is harmonically more satisfying than the solution proposed by Joachim, and the technical inconvenience is minor. On the other hand, the Joachim version has stood the test of time, and was clearly approved of by the composer.
In another extremely small detail, the downbeat of measure 112 was originally connected by Brahms to the previous measure’s slur. Joachim evidently wanted a clearer downbeat on a down-bow in case one is running out of bow. This is obviously a very violinistic decision — not a musical one. Good bow management would allow for the first two notes of measure 112 both to be played on up-bow with short strokes, and the slur would then be able to connect to the down-beat.
I prefer the double down-bow in the middle of measure 115 so that the passage that begins in measure 116 allows for a more natural bow-arm flow throughout the following four bars. Most violinists begin measure 116 on a down bow, and the ensuing quality of the legato invariably suffers to my ear.
m. 132: Obviously, Joachim’s suggestion to slur this bar like the previous ones did NOT meet with Brahms’ approval. On the other hand, the Joachim slur in m.134 did survive.
The change that Joachim proposed in measure 149 was obviously intended to facilitate the ascent to the high D. But in the process, that high D is displaced from the second beat of the measure where Brahms intended it to reign for a full dotted-quarter. This change, although once again obviously accepted by Brahms, seems to me to weaken the dramatic impact of the musical gesture.
mm. 162-163: Please see comments on articulation for measure 97.
mm. 164-167: It is common practice to play the chords all down bow. And it has been common practice to play the two tied chords turning towards the bottom of the chords to avoid holding the open E on top. Although this reverse-spin on chordal playing has been largely discredited in Baroque music, I do believe that there is legitimacy in its practice here.
m. 174: I do not find that the slurs proposed by Joachim enhance this dramatic passage.
m. 176: See comments above in regards to m. 97.
mm. 180-197: I very reluctantly take extra bows in much of this section. The realities of the rich orchestral texture make it almost obligatory, in spite of the fact that the orchestra is here the soloist, to be sure. Under ideal acoustical circumstances, and at a tempo closer to the one proposed later by Joachim, it might not be necessary.
mm. 204-205: It is all too common to hear considerable rubato in these two measures, to the considerable detriment of the line. The eighth notes are inherited from the orchestra, and the bridge must deliver a clear tempo directly to the pizzicato accompaniment in the strings that follows.
mm. 230-233: Again, I find that I must give mixed reviews to Joachim’s proposals here. The changes in articulation — break-up of the first long slur, and then addition of a slur over the last two measures — all enhance the soaring line. But it is mysterious to me how the little c-natural grace note in measure 230 could have disappeared. It has not been struck out by Joachim in the holographic manuscript. But it has disappeared entirely in print. It is not only beautiful, but also of assistance in vaulting on high.
In measures 268-270, I have once again restored to some degree the original articulative impulses of the composer. However, the number of bows needed to declaim this powerful conclusion of the exposition might always be greater than ideally imagined in the practice room. When the urge arises to take extra bows towards this end, no petty fidelity to the original markings should interfere.
Joachim’s pen has extended some of the slurs in measures 309-311. I choose not to extend a slur to the downbeat of measure 312, as that is the beginning of the oboe solo.
It was Yehudi Menuhin, in his preface to the manuscript publication, who commented in regard to the passage beginning at measure 312, “…most violinists ignore the dot at the end of the slur over the pairs of sixteenth notes. …the second of the two slurred notes should always be slightly separated from the following eighth note.” This advice seems sage to me, even though too clinical a reading of it could result in a lack of “grazioso.” However, I do continue to observe this articulation all the way through measure 331. The tranquillo instruction by Brahms in measure 312 is typical of the composer’s use of the term — implying primarily mood, but also very likely a slightly slower tempo as well.
The downbeat of measure 365 appears also to have an octave which mysteriously disappeared in subsequent editions. Joachim proposed two bowings which are mutually supportive — the slur across the bar-line to measure 365, and the breaking up of the slur in the arpeggios of measure 366. Brahms original inclination seems stronger to me, and certainly affords more bow with which to project the arpeggio.
One wonders why Joachim struck out the small crescendo in the solo part of measure 375, and replaced it with two accents on the two A octaves. One can obviously do both the accents and the crescendi. Joachim’s slur on the first two notes of measure 378 is just a bowing convenience, so that the high note arrives on an up-bow.
Once again in measure 415 Joachim’s slurs seem unnecessary. The two slurs he added in measures 417 and 419 are strictly for bowing convenience. Joachim’s contribution to measures 431 through 436 are inspired.
Measures 509-510 are fascinating. Brahms apparently had written originally three beats of five notes each in both measures. Joachim felt that resting a bit longer on the down beat of 509 was more satisfying. The notation that evolved for 510 seems to be a compromise between the two men.
There are few comments that need to be made in regards to the cadenza of Joachim. The three versions of this, and the other cadenzas published in the Bärenreiter edition are certainly of interest. But the original published cadenza by Joachim has served nobly for the majority of violinists for over a century. There are three staccato markings (measures 1, 39, 54) which seem dubious to me. The diminuendo hairpin which contradicts the prevailing cresc. in measure 10 is certainly odd. The small hairpins in measures 56-57 were likely intended as broad accents on the two Bb’s. The original notation in measure 67 is certainly preferable to the ossia unless one has an extremely small hand. Then at the end of the cadenza, the D# in measure 78 and the B-natural in measure 79 are certainly correct.
The tranquillo marked by Brahms for the Coda was certainly intended as a slower valedictory tempo for the final statement of the principal theme. However, the extremely slow tempo favored by some violinists is self-indulgent, and replaces nobility with sentimentality. Joachim’s slurs in measures 539-542 are very idealistic. I have yet to find oboists and clarinetists who play truly piano at this moment in a large hall, and so I usually do not do the slurs, as I need more bow at that altitude. Joachim’s bowing revisions in measures 553-557 are very practical. However, I do prefer the declamatory nature of the original détaché bowings in measures 555 and 557. It is not clear to me how the stringendo into the animato originated, but it certainly is a very natural gesture.
In the second movement, Joachim made quite a few articulative suggestions that are inspired and have stood the test of many performances. He seemed to want to dwell more over the harmonically pivotal measure 45, and it might not be a bad idea to allow the nachschlag here to be played with separate bows. The extremely small fermata in measure 63 creates an unfortunate major hiatus at the hands of some soloists.
Joachim’s pen was masterful in measures 71-84.
There must have been a story behind Brahms’ conception of tempo for the final movement. Clearly he originally wrote, “ma non troppo vivace” after the Allegro giocoso, for some reason crossed it out, and then rewrote it again! Younger soloists today are attempting to redeem the movement from the overly portly reading that was somewhat fashionable at the end of the 20th century. But Brahms’ instructions really say it all. It is to be “joyous,” but “not too fast!”
It has always struck me as curious that Joachim’s simplifications of the passages in the exposition (measures 19-26) did not survive. On the other hand, the changes that he proposed for the recapitulation (measures 195-202) for the most part survived and became a part of the canon. It does not seem to me that Brahms’ original ideas are significantly more playable in the exposition than they are in the recapitulation. For this reason, I encourage younger soloists to try the original in both cases, realizing that the changes in the latter part are certainly brilliant and effective as well.
I have no idea why Mr. Joachim proposed the changes in measures 35-36. Sustaining the open A string is sonorous and strong. Also, Joachim’s changes in measure 116 are such a small adjustment, to make slightly more comfortable a part which will always be notorious for its discomfort. Is the B-natural in measure 71 really more comfortable for the left hand than Brahms’ original D#? The crescendi, slurs, and sforzando are of course most helpful.
Joachim’s alterations in measures 122-123 with the additional instruction of “teneramente” are inspired. However, I have not the slightest idea why he added the forte marking in measure 143. There is no such indication in the parallel passage in measure 49. Perhaps he was just a bit paranoid as to the carrying power of his middle register to project the strength of character that he wanted. The lower open A string is certainly very plausible in measure 217. And the four-note chord with the open G string which Brahms originally intended in measure 222 is so wonderfully powerful. The mp written into the orchestra part in measure 225 could easily have been added to the solo part as well.
There are many small issues that Brahms and Joachim clearly debated in the last pages of the Concerto. I do not feel so strongly about any of them. But it is worth pointing some of them out for each student of the score to consider on its own merits. In measures 249-250 Joachim put two small rests in place of what seem to have been open G’s. The original was mildly awkward to be sure. The original last two notes of measure 253 are viable, although having the open E string to assist in vaulting up is helpful. Then there were originally double stops on the two principal beats of measure 254.
Much excavation took place in measures 259-265. Personally, I prefer the bass note of the downbeat in measure 263 to be a C#. I see no need for the additional G# in measure 264. With or without the grace note in measure 265, I prefer the sixth in the fermata chord on top.
We all owe Joachim a debt of gratitude for smoothing out measures 281-288! Brahms’ original notation at the end of measure 303 and the ensuing double stop on the down beat that follows are certainly both attractive.
Joachim made major changes to the passages in measures 322-327. The first three measures seem to me to be justified. In the last three measures, there seems to have been an original proposal by Brahms, followed by an alternate reading by Joachim, and finally a sort of compromise was reached. The chord on the downbeat of measure 327 is of course a very good idea.
Joachim’s proposal to shorten the scale in measure 337, beginning it after a brief rest, is more effective than Brahms’ initial idea. Some violinists strenuously insist that any ritardando at the end of the piece, except perhaps for the last three chords, is objectionable. This is not a major issue for me.
All of the above details are for the most part relatively trivial, in comparison to the immense grandeur of the work itself, as it has come down to us through the loving eyes of Joachim. His care both in assisting at the birthing of the piece, and in thinking through it once again some years later was a model of artistic integrity. The thoughts above are the product of years of pleasure in presenting this masterpiece on many stages with the companionship of a variety of conductors and orchestras. It has inspired audiences all over the world as the very model of the romantic and heroic violin concerto.
Active as a concerto soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, conductor and educator, James Buswell is one of the most versatile musicians performing today. He has appeared with virtually all of the major orchestras in the United States and Canada, as well as with orchestras in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America, and has collaborated with such distinguished conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Erich Leinsdorf, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, George Szell and Michael Tilson Thomas. In recital, he is noted for adventuresome programming, regularly combining standard masterpieces with works that are less well-known.
Mr. Buswell is as closely associated with new music as he has been with the standard repertoire. World premiere performances include works by Donald Erb, Charles Wuorinen, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Leon Kirchner, John Harbison, Gunther Schuller, William Bolcom, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Yehudi Wyner. Most recently, Mr. Buswell’s recordings of the Piston and Barber violin concerti were released on the Naxos label, for which the latter received a 2003 Grammy nomination. For many years an artist-member of both the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Bach Aria Group, Mr. Buswell continues to appear as guest artist with many chamber music organizations.
While at the same time pursuing an active concert career, James Buswell received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University with a major in early Renaissance painting and sculpture. He resides in Boston with his wife, cellist Carol Ou. The unanimous praise for his “sensitive, evocative, compelling playing” continues unabated today.
Michael Weizmann said:
A word on the tempo for the first movement:
In my study of this work as a teenager my teacher, a pupil of Carl Flesch, insisted I begin my study-session with earnest and mainly slow practice of the D Major scale, paying particular attention to the arpeggios for both single notes and chords.
After hearing David Oistrakh live and scores of younger and older violinists of lesser fame since then, I was still left wondering why nearly all soloists insist on rushing and often frankly fluffing and bluffing their way through the first few measures.
In my maturity I have come to more fully realise the huge importance of especially the first measure–beautifully bravura though it is–of the solo part of the first movement, as setting the foundational tempo for the remainder of the movement.
When I teach the Brahms concerto I always make the student sing out loud, and strongly dramatisingly, the entire first tutti with a very firm and steady beat which is not to vary.
This serves to introduce the student to the wonderfully dramatic and romantic quest that Brahms was on when he composed the work in association with Joachim.
Now to my principal point: How to practise it.
To my mind, the two sequential sets of quintuplets in the first measure are to be practised and performed s-l-o-w-l-y and very strictly rhythmically and distinctly in order to reveal the purpose of first harmonic progression in the minor key in the first movement.
In order to bring out what I am convinced is clearly Brahms’ intention in writing the violin solo entry in the way he did, the crotchet beats of the first two Ds—tied as they are–need to be strongly focussed-on and each separately emphasised and driven by our inner voice.
I have found that for a student—or a seasoned performer, for that matter—to achieve this highly important focus, the measure needs to be practised in strict tempo (Allegro non troppo) at a metronome setting of about 45 increasing (for subsequent repetitions—about 3 at a time) to no more than 60, without the violin in hand and with the harmonic progression being very strongly felt and sung and hence well understood.
I insist that for this stage of the practising of the first measure the student plays only the first quintuplet, and then STOPS for one whole crotchet beat instead of going immediately on to play the second quintuplet.
During the stop the student is to very strongly focus in a deliberately anticipatory manner on the third beat of the measure in which the C-Sharp begins the second quintuplet arpeggio, and SING the C-Sharp very distinctly.
Practised in this way, the first measure begins to make musical sense, settles the soloist and, I believe, provides him with an essential clue as to how Brahms conceived the entire first movement in its rhythmical and harmonic structuring.
The slower, unrushed tempo that such practising encourages is, I believe, nothing less than revelatory as to the composer’s intended manner of performance of the entire first movement.
It also helps a budding soloist not to follow the appalling and grossly unmusical example of all too many of our present-day younger (and some older) “playing-machine” performers of this concerto who literally zip through the two sets of quaver-quintuplets in the first measure and go on from there–at the far too quick a tempo they have committed themselves to–to blur and largely miss the point of the entire first movement and so make musical nonsense of it.