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'Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77'

'Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77,' for violin and piano, edited (violin part) by Thomas Zehetmair (Breitkopf & Härtel, urtext no. 8635, €14.00)

Brahms wrote his violin concerto in 1878 at his favorite summer retreat in the Carinthian lake district, where he had written his second symphony the year before. He dedicated the concerto to his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who premiered it in Leipzig, Germany, on New Year's Day 1879 under the composer's baton.

This recently published urtext offers fresh insights into this beloved classic and presents new ways for players to approach it. It corrects heavy-handed changes made by Arthur Schnabel in his 1926 edition, which contradicted the intent of Joachim's contributions. But first, it's important to understand Brahms' and Joachim's working relationship.

Professing himself a "layman" regarding violin technique, Brahms relied on Joachim's judgment and advice, often following his suggestions, but also using them to find his own solutions.

Their correspondence during the concerto's composition is fascinating.

With characteristic self-deprecation, Brahms reported that he had eliminated two of the original four movements, replacing them with a "meager" Adagio, and encouraged his friend to "saw away vigorously at the violin part and the score." Joachim expressed his love and admiration for the work eloquently in an essay in his "School of Violin Playing." In it, he analyzes the concerto's structure, character, and emotional content, calling attention to the virtually equal partnership between soloist and orchestra, and offering detailed instructions for the execution and interpretation of its dauntingly difficult solo part. The work makes great demands on both performers and audience, but discerning listeners, such as the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, recognized it as "the most important violin concerto since Beethoven's and Mendelssohn's."

The concerto was published in 1879, and Joachim edited and marked the violin part, adding a first-movement cadenza and suggestions for simplifying some of the most intractable passages. Brahms, a formidable pianist, made the piano reduction—no mean task, given the richness and complexity of the score. Instead of attempting to make the piano sound like an orchestra, he created a true collaborative piano part; in the slow movement's opening tutti, the oboe solo is not played by the pianist, but, printed on a separate line, is presumably left to the temporarily unemployed violinist.

Evidently feeling that Brahms had shortchanged his own orchestration, Schnabel published a reduction in 1926 that is exactly the opposite. He tried to reproduce the register of each instrument and the massive sonority of a full orchestra, using heavy chords, octaves, jumps, and introducing a singular feature: chords played "silently" by depressing but not striking the keys. And, of course, he included the slow movement's oboe solo in the texture. His version is grand but so difficult that many pianists refuse to learn it. He offers copious fingerings while Brahms offers none. The violin part, edited by Carl Flesch, carries far more fingerings and bowings than Joachim's; both use lots of slides, as was customary, and violinistically unavoidable, at their time.

The new 2006 Breitkopf urtext uses Brahms' piano reduction and Joachim's violin part, complete with his markings and suggested alternatives.

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