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Schoenberg/Brahms Violin Concertos

Jack Liebeck (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay (Orchid Classics)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Brahms • Schoenberg
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77; Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, Op. 36
Jack Liebeck (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay
Orchid Classics ORC100129   77.15 mins


Propaganda, hostile or otherwise, regarding Schoenberg’s 12-note method of composition has been a major distorting mirror around his music for almost a century now. So a release of this quality, while welcome in its own right, also amounts to a useful corrective in the sense that it enables each listener to assess the contents without someone else’s agenda trying to influence the situation. Completed in 1936, a few years after its composer’s self-exile from Nazi Germany to the US, Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is a radical, but far from over-strident attempt to fuse together classical tradition and his personally-evolved 12-note idiom. The result has strong links with the between-the-wars, mildly modernist manner of composers like Hindemith and Kurt Weill.

That said, it isn’t always easy listening. Schoenberg must have been in ironic mode when he was asked why, in a work of this kind, he wasn’t composing in the style of Verklärte Nacht any more, and responded: ‘I am. But no one notices.’ The issue isn’t so much the music’s fairly benign modernism, more the combination of this with its compulsive hyper-invention – a manifestation of the composer’s technical mastery, but sometimes a taxing listen for all that. The same is true of earlier, still essentially tonal works like the symphonic poem Pelleas and Melisande and the Chamber Symphony No. 1, where this drive never lets up for long.

Then again, if you can accept the composer’s unyielding terms, there’s a rewarding experience on offer here too. When he wants, Schoenberg can allow into his music a lyrical streak that’s genuinely appealing – as in the second of the Violin Concerto’s three movements, where the soloist’s winsome opening theme is gently and beautifully recalled in the later stages. The orchestra’s accompaniment combines technical density with a unique Schoenbergian brand of sonic transparency, as in the first movement’s closing bars. And while the finale is again packed with close-focus invention, it also has a kind of off-the-wall, free-flowing manner that’s another Schoenberg trademark.

All this presents fearsome technical demands to the work’s soloist. Jack Liebeck responds with astonishing command, allowing the music’s expression to speak with a real degree of freedom, even fantasy, so that the solo part can interact with similarly deft accompaniment by the orchestra. The same qualities shine throughout a stellar interpretation of Brahms’s masterwork. Liebeck’s approach here, while powerful and forthright, also finds beautiful light and shade in the quieter moments, and the finale’s dialogue scintillates between soloist and orchestra alike. Instead of Joseph Joachim’s first-movement cadenza (today virtually standard), Liebeck plays Fritz Kreisler’s – an exercise in relentless and rather baleful double-stopping that might not work so well for all, but a legitimate choice.

The recording finds a near-perfect balance between spaciousness and detail, conveying every intricacy within a natural perspective. Malcolm Hayes