A lopsided performance

Brahms: Double concerto (Sony)

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Craving a dose of Brahms, I landed on a new release of his violin and cello double concerto, written in 1887 and the last score he composed for orchestra, a decade before his death. The concerto was a conciliatory offering to his lifelong friend Joseph Joachim. It followed a bitter falling-out over the violinist’s divorce from his wife, Amelie, in which Brahms was suspected of taking Amelie’s side. Joachim had accused her, falsely, of infidelity with a publisher.

When Robert Hausmann, a member of Joachim’s string quartet, wondered if Brahms might write him a cello concerto, the composer designed the work with equal parts for cello and violin, a way of demonstrating that old individualities could still get along. Joachim was mollified by the new work and all lived happily ever after – except for Amelie who was dragged through the mud after 21 years of marriage and six children. She went back on stage, premiering songs by Brahms and Mahler.

The concerto was not an instant hit, dismissed by Brahms fans as cerebral and by his friend Clara Schumann as frigid. These scepticisms seem incomprehensible on hearing the richly woven textures of the middle movement, the acme of underfloor Brahmsian central heating, as well as the delicately constituted dialogue between the two soloists.

The latest recording is by Anne-Sophie Mutter and a protégé of hers, the Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández; the orchestra is the Czech Philharmonic conducted by her friend Manfred Honeck. Nothing has been left to chance, yet Mutter is oddly absent from the proceedings. Never a shrinking violet, she has a slightly recessed sound and reticent expression, letting herself be overwhelmed by the cellist and the unconstrained Czechs. Did the record producer not raise an eyebrow, or was Sony just too daunted by its celebrity guest? Either way, the performance is lopsided.

It offers scant competition to Heifetz and Piatigorsky (1961), Milstein and Piatigorsky (1951), Oistrakh and Rostropovich (1970) or Gidon Kremer with Mischa Maisky in 1984. The filler on this release is a little-known trio by Clara Schumann, agreeable but unimposing.

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