It was Hans von Bülow, the one-time chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker who said that Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto is a “concerto against the violin” – simply because the soloist is given little opportunity for virtuoso showmanship. In this concert, the Berliner Philharmoniker, soloist Guy Braunstein and conductor Andris Nelsons set about to uncover the evident as well as the hidden charms of the work.
The solo part of the Violin Concerto is however anything but easy to play. With the violin closely interwoven with the other instruments for long passages, the work can appear more like a symphony than a concerto. All the greater then is the effect when it confidently rises above its fellow instruments with its delicate lines, leaving all the large-scale orchestral force behind it. The violinist Guy Braunstein has become a familiar face to Berliner Philharmoniker audiences ever since he became 1st Concertmaster of the orchestra in 2000. Just eight years earlier he had made his Philharmonic debut – as one of the soloists in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
The second work of the evening, Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, complements Brahms’s Violin Concerto in two respects. Firstly, there is the triumphant gesture of this self-portrait – that is, after all, what it is – in direct contrast to the seriousness of the Brahms work. And secondly, in the third movement you can experience how an expansive violin solo develops unexpectedly from a symphonic poem, played here by Guy Braunstein’s fellow concertmaster, Daishin Kashimoto.
Familiar Works by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss
Careers – in music as well – need support in order to gain momentum. Nowadays marketing and extensive media exposure are crucial for a successful career in music. During the nineteenth century, prominent individuals were more likely to take on the task of bringing young talent into the limelight. A well-known teacher, an influential composer or conductor – those were the important career builders. Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss both had the good fortune to be discovered and encouraged early. Brahms was 20 years old when Robert Schumann introduced him to a wide public virtually overnight with his essay “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Strauss’s Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments Op. 7 was premiered in Dresden when he was only 18, and the work was soon added to the repertoire of the Meiningen court orchestra by the influential conductor Hans von Bülow – a stroke of luck for the young composer’s career.
Whereas Strauss assumed the post of Music Director in Meiningen only two years later (“He cuts a good figure in every respect,” von Bülow wrote in October 1885, “A great career lies ahead of him!”), Brahms suffered for a long time under the burden of the premature praise that Schumann had lavished on him like a musical messiah (“And he has come, a young man over whose cradle graces and heroes have stood watch”). He devoted himself to an intensive study of counterpoint in order to compensate for deficiencies in his composition skills, trained himself with piano music and groped his way slowly with serenades, orchestral variations, the First Piano Concerto Op. 15 and choral works with orchestra. Brahms did not complete his first symphony as opus 68 until he was 40.
Concerto with Symphonic Character
In his Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77 Johannes Brahms consciously continued to use classical forms but gave the work a completely original style. Since the composer had little experience with the violin as a solo instrument, he sent the first draft of the work to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, to look over at the end of August 1878. The two friends corresponded frequently about the violin concerto, and Brahms left the composition of the long solo cadenza to Joachim, who played the solo part at the premiere in Leipzig on 1 January 1879 and many subsequent performances.
The concerto is extremely demanding technically, with great leaps, many double stops and awkward positions. Its virtuosity is not as calculated for effect as in other romantic concertos, however, but at times seems somewhat dogged and thematically restrained. Particularly in the opening Allegro non troppo, the solo violin part is closely interwoven with the orchestral accompaniment – a partnership. As in a classical concerto, Brahms has the orchestra introduce the exposition before the soloist takes the initiative with a defiant entrance that is repeatedly spurred on by sharply dotted rhythms in the tutti. The lyrical principal theme and songlike second theme, which is only hinted at in the orchestral exposition, must first be fought for, as it were, by the solo violin. This abrasive spirit appears again and again during the first movement, which dispenses with overly literal repetitions and continues the thematic development in the violin part and accompaniment.
Referring to the slow movement, the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate – who, incidentally, never performed the concerto himself – observed that he did not wish to stand on the platform during the Adagio, violin in hand, and listen to “the oboe play the only melody in the whole work”. The challenge for the soloist in this movement is to play the cantabile theme, which is only accompanied by the winds at the beginning, with even more feeling than the oboe – the carpet of strings and the delicate imitations can help as well. The drama heightens during the F-sharp minor middle section, but only traces of it are heard in the recurring F major section.
The finale is a rondo tinged with Hungarian colour, rhythmically concentrated and calling for awkward double stops from the solo violin. Pronounced dotted rhythms – reminiscent of those in the first movement – and chains of semiquavers dashing through the registers give the finale an aggressive tone that is tempered by the folkloric context. The movement loses energy in the final bars, until three dry chords bring it to a somewhat abrupt close.
Symphony with a Concertante Solo Instrument
The tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) Op. 40 by Richard Strauss, which was premiered in Frankfurt in 1899, also features a solo violin. It is introduced by the composer in order to give “The Hero’s Companion” musical character. The violin part, played by the leader and unaccompanied in places, seems improvised at times, with rhythmic and melodic freedom. Performance directions such as “flippant”, “boisterous”, “somewhat sentimental”, “angry” or “mercurial and nagging” could also describe an emotional person. According to Romain Rolland’s account, Strauss said, “I wanted to portray my wife. She is very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute.” Although the composer still used a literary programme as the basis for his tone poem Don Quixote Op. 35, which was composed during the same period, in Ein Heldenleben and the subsequent Symphonia domestica Op. 53 he depicted his own life.
Ein Heldenleben opens spectacularly with an exultant theme, played in unison by the cellos and horns, which presents a powerful hero bursting with energy. His opponents – Strauss calls them “The Hero’s Adversaries” – soon arrive, however, and after a general pause appear on the scene with strange, nervously jumpy, grumbling figures in the flutes and oboes, accompanied by the dry murmuring of the two tubas – a sarcastic caricature of his critics. The hero gradually makes himself heard again, until the solo violin of “The Hero’s Companion” suddenly enters. The opulent orchestral texture is treated as chamber music here, until the strings add even more emotion to this lovers’ idyll with increasingly richer sound. This happiness is short-lived, however, since trumpet fanfares in the distance sound the call to battle on “The Hero’s Battlefield”. This is truly battle music, which Strauss unleashes with full brass and powerful percussion. The hero seems to have prevailed, and the opening theme returns unchanged with full strength. His gaze turns to the past when Strauss quotes his most important works of that time – the tone poems Don Juan, Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung and the opera Guntram in “The Hero’s Works of Peace”. The triumphant spirit does not return, however; harps and strings dominate the events. The hero “withdraws completely into the idyll, to live only in his thoughts, wishes and the still, contemplative outcome of his own personality. / Autumnal forest – resignation by the side of the beloved – music dying away warm-heartedly at her side,” the composer notes in his sketchbook for “The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World and Fulfilment”. Initially Strauss wanted to let the work die away to a pianissimo, but after a friend expressed criticism he changed the score. Now, a few bars before the close, the trumpets rouse the wind tutti with an ascending E-flat major triad that crescendos to a fortissimo, finally illuminating this hero’s life with brilliant light.
Translation: Phyllis Anderson
Guy Braunstein, born in Tel Aviv, has played the violin since the age of six. Among his teachers are Chaim Taub, Glenn Dicterow and Pinchas Zukerman. His first contact with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in 1992 – as one of the soloists in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto conducted by Zubin Mehta. Before coming to the orchestra as First Konzertmeister in September 2000, he had also collaborated as a soloist with other leading orchestras (such as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Bamberger Symphoniker) and conductors like Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Fedoseyev. In 1995 in Cologne, for example, he gave the world premiere of Shifting, a violin concerto composed for him by Rolf Riehm. Guy Braunstein is also a dedicated member of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and active chamber-music player as well as member of the Berlin Philharmonic Violins and the Philharmonic Friends of Vienna-Berlin. As a soloist with the orchestra, he was last heard in October 2009 under the direction of Semyon Bychkov in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.
Andris Nelsons was born to a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; since 2002 he has been a student of Mariss Jansons. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, taking on the same role the year after with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, he completed his tenure as principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. In summer 2010, he made his conducting debut at the Bayreuth Festival in a new production of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuenfels. Andis Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras. After his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010, he returned in September 2011 to conduct works by Kaminski, Pfitzner, Rihm and Strauss.
Highlights from the concert can be seen in our trailer.