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5.0 out of 5 stars A modern sensibility steeped in classical values, 16 Jun 2011
This review is from: Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Op.77, String Sextet No. 2 Op. 36 (Isabelle Faust) (Audio CD)
German born violinist Isabelle Faust and conductor Daniel Harding, the pairing here in Brahms' famous Violin Concerto Op. 77, belong to the modern school of period-induced playing and conducting. My previous experience with Faust was as violinist on a recording of Brahms chamber music and I last met Harding when he conducted some Beethoven overtures. I liked neither recording as well as I like this classically-rendered version of the concerto.

Faust, who was a Gramophone young artist of the year in 1997 after the release of her first album, built her reputation pursuing chamber music, 20th century and and lesser-known repertory from the likes of Jovilet, Ligeti, Danielpour and the concertos of Michael Jarrell and Thomas Larcher that were dedicated to her. In the intervening years, she has gone on to record famous concertos by Bach, Dvorak and Beethoven.

The Brahms concerto transcends these great works because of its classic lines of construction expressed in musical language from the late romantic period. Brahms built a titanic first movement, followed by a heartfelt and melodious slow movement, and wrapped up the affair with a rondo-dance. While transferring the emotional volatility of late 19th century romance, his classical concerto eschews the excesses of Tchaikovsky and other late romantics.

A virtuoso of the first order playing a 1704 Stradivarius, Faust seems to understand this. With bowing and double stops that match any violinist alive today, she practices virtuosic and emotional restraint while matching her orchestral partners' dramatic sweep and tension in the 20-minute opening movement, then quietly settles into Brahms' self-defined "feeble adagio" before sweeping away listeners with bravura playing in the Hungarian finale.

Using Ferrucio Busoni's first movement cadenza underlined by Harding's timpani, Faust is abetted by Harding and the 14-year-old Mahler Chamber Orchestra -- a modern period ensemble of about 40 players -- in a recording strong on orchestral clarity and power mated to vivid execution with solo work full of expressive character. While the Mahler Chamber Orchestra lacks the weight of a larger ensemble, and some listeners may not like all the sounds the horns make, they carry the argument splendidly in support of the soloist.

There are other versions of this concerto I enjoy -- Kennedy's indulgent version that stretches out the music 45 music and Heifitz's fiery virtuosity chief among them -- but none I know have the combination of expressive playing, clarity in execution and dramatic thrust this one demonstrates.

The significant add-on is Brahms Second Sextet for strings, Op. 36, a piece that projects more the autumnal resignation of his final symphony and Alto Rhapsody than the forward-stepping romance and triumph of the violin concerto. Faust leads from the violin in a reading that is, again, of 21st century sensibility while steeped in the classical (and traditional) values that make Brahms history's No. 4 classical composer behind only Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.

To hear one moment that envelops the sextet's enchanting playing and scintillating interpretation, listen to the way Faust et al handle the first movement's exposition subject on repeat, playing with tenderness and utter sensitivity to the changing moods of the piece, and hardly just playing the music that came a few minutes earlier. Even speeds a point or two faster than the norm do nothing to keep this performance from the first rank.

The CD version of this recording is handsomely packaged in a box, not a plastic case, the opens to a second set of foldouts containing the CD and the removable 42-page booklet. The latter contains an essay from Roman Hinke on the connection between Joseph Joachim and the Brahms concerto as well as three pages from Faust on her impressions of the music and why she chose Busoni's 1913 cadenza. The up close recording was made in Berlin in 2010.

In fine modern sound, Harmonia Mundi has created a 75-minute concert that Brahms lovers, whether wedded to the high cholesterol, big band oeuvre from the likes of Furtwangler, Karajan and Klemperer to the most modern school of playing, can enjoy equally. Only those unjustly averse to period style should avoid this exceptional chamber-sized issue.
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