Interpreting the Brahms Violin Concerto

Notes on the pervading principles that shaped our interpretation of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Maxim Vengerov

When Maxim Vengerov invited us to perform and then record the Brahms Violin Concerto with him, we were besieged with feelings of joy but also of trepidation at the challenge ahead. Conscious of what was expected of us, we set out to provide an orchestral accompaniment commensurate to his great artistry.

He and I had already performed the Brahms Violin Sonatas and the Piano Concerto No 2 with Maxim as conductor. Bringing out the symphonic nature of these works led us to performances where each tried to complement the other.

From an early age, I have been made aware of the most difficult aspect of piano playing, that of accompanying oneself. When the left hand accompanies the right, it is the former that determines the shape and sound of the latter. In my study, I frequently isolate the two hands, concentrating on the left to provide not only the textures and sonorities required for the right to sing in cantilena passages, but also to pace the music.

With this in mind, I confronted the score to determine ways by which we could provide sonorities to elucidate Maxim’s mellifluous sound and suppleness of rhythm to allow his phrases to breathe and unfold naturally.

My philosophy on tempi – which I have adhered to for most of my professional life – is quite a simple one: it doesn’t matter how slow a piece is played so long as the musical line is sustained; conversely, it doesn’t matter how fast a work is being played, so long as the musical lines breathe. If one note does not connect to another, in real legato, the musical line will still sound slow and disjointed however far the tempo is pushed. If notes are sustained and relate to one another, it doesn’t matter how slow one plays, the musical line will still have a flow about it and move along. Of course, there comes a time when the line is stretched too far and loses its “elasticity”. A great artist will listen carefully to how far a note can be sustained, particularly on the piano, before releasing it to introduce the next.

It is interesting that the first six notes of the opening of the Brahms Violin Concerto are identical to the theme of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’, a semitone apart. The beauty of the former lies in its nobility – as it is indeed in the ‘Emperor’. This nobility can only be captured with a tempo that allows the melodic line time to unfold and each interval to register expressively.

At a more leisurely speed, the rising third in the opening (D to F#) is given time to expand and be expressive, highlighting its prominence throughout the concerto and in the themes of the other movements, becoming a falling third in the second before rising again in the main subject of the last.

In order to heighten the tension in crescendo passages, a momentary dip in dynamics is often employed. The principle of applying the reverse to heighten tension can also be employed when an accelerando is called for. Holding back the tempo at the start of an accelerando can be most effective.

In order to underline the noble character of the main theme, we introduced it solemnly, applying a gradual quickening of the pace to reach the median tempo for the movement by around bar 41 that Maxim and I considered appropriate for the grandeur of the piece.

Great interpreters of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto often apply a similar approach when allowing the music to gain momentum well after the opening bars.

The ebb and flow of music is often determined by pivotal notes that seem to propel the music forward and by those that allow the tide to recede. Deviation from strict metronomic time is often necessary to elucidate the ebb and flow, particularly when we need to create space between notes to delineate the contours of a phrase.

There are times in the 1st movement of the concerto when the heightened tension of the third beat of the bar – indicated by Brahms with marked accents – will inevitably result in a slight delay of the onslaught of the downbeat. But like any skilful rendition of tempo rubato, any time taken is swiftly given back. In the last movement, the stress required on the last quaver beat in bar 3, indicated by a sforzando, is infused with such energy that the delay of the downbeat is inevitable, adding character to the theme.

The palpable energy of an intensified note and its subsequent release of tension determine the direction of the phrase. In the section between bars 224 – 233 in the 1st movement and the corresponding phrase in the recapitulation marked dolce lusingando, we sought to provide Maxim with adequate space, allowing him to realise each leap with ardour and maintain a clear sense of direction. The tension that pervades in the pauses prior to each pizzicato burst is palpable.

Delaying the resolution of chords for as long as possible maintains the tension and produces longer lines. With this in mind, we wanted to introduce the idea of placing grace notes on the beat – a practice adopted by many artists when handling ornamentation in Beethoven – in the coda of the last movement of the concerto. The stress on the downbeat produces a sequence of appoggiaturas and suspensions, which delay the resolution to allow the dissonance to be heard on the beat and maintain the intensity and forward momentum of the music.

Colours and Textures
In trying to illuminate Maxim’s sound, we searched for textures and sonorities that complement it. Indeed, a chord that is not voiced properly will often mar the tonal beauty of the soloist’s sound, even one produced on a Stradivarius!

Deciding when to apply pressure of the bow to create a thickness of sound and when to release it to produce more transparent textures was crucial in our determination to align ourselves with the solo line. Thus, in bars 393 of the 1st movement we applied transparency of sound in the strings to complement the solo violin’s luminous tone and thicker textures to heighten the tension in bars 98 – 101. Having a palette of colours at our disposal from the start has meant that we adapted at all times to match the colours of the solo violin and produce aesthetically pleasing musical textures.

Sound Production
From our first encounter with Maxim Vengerov it was evident that we shared many principles in our approach to music making. One of these was sound production.

Maxim coaxes a note into being, instead of striking it. The sound emerges from nowhere as it is set in motion and continues its passage through time and space moving from one note to the other seamlessly like a tonal body in constant and perpetual motion. Maxim and I agree that the dynamic quality of a tone is a statement of its incompleteness. When we play, we are always between notes, on the way from one to the other. We are therefore more interested in what happens between notes in their passage through time and how we might condition the emergence of a note by preparing it well in time. To quote Wilhelm Furtwängler: “The power to affect a note lies in the preparation of the beat, not in the beat itself…”. Once the preliminary beat has been set in motion, the moment of impact has been predetermined, requiring the conductor at times to do little to signal the advent of the downbeat.

It is often said that a conductor has little bearing on the quality of the sound produced by the orchestra, as he or she has no direct contact with a sound-producing instrument. In my experience this is not always the case. In piano playing, the pianist has no more direct contact with the string that produces the sound than a conductor. Yet, tonal quality is determined by the touch applied on the key and movement of the hand, which set in motion a complex mechanism resulting in the hammer hitting the string. The same applies to a conductor whose gestures trigger reflex actions that indirectly affect the quality of the sound produced by the musicians of the orchestra.

Throughout the concerto, we encouraged our musicians to bring notes into being rather than strike them, particularly in the more lyrical passages. This process allowed us to align ourselves with the flow of Maxim’s linear passages, dovetailing in and out in an intimate and interwoven dialogue. Indeed, it is this interactive dialogue between soloist and orchestra that ultimately defines the symphonic nature of a concerto.

Achieving synergy is also contingent on our ability to hear and play in our minds every note the soloist executes.

There is a distinct difference between playing one’s part in time according to the beat of the conductor and listening to the soloist attentively – as if playing his or her part – to interact. While in both cases a good ensemble might be achieved, it is in the latter that totally synergy is attained. In bars 98 – 102, for instance, we were keen to place the last quaver of each sequence not only in time, but also within the flow of Maxim’s ferocious semiquavers. Similarly in bar 94, the last quaver acts as an upbeat to Maxim’s ensuing entry, creating a sense of direction.

It has always been our aim to deliver strong musical statements. These, at times, stray from the norm. But they are always delivered with musical integrity and with a passion to communicate.

As a young man, one of the highlights of my career was when Sir Michael Tippett invited me for lunch in the company of Sir William Walton while I was visiting Bath to perform at the Festival. In awe of my surroundings I remained silent, listening attentively to the conversation of these two extraordinary men. I distinctly remember Walton talking about performance and how composers’ markings should be open to interpretation. He referred to occasions when a performer presented a piece of his in a new light and not necessarily in the way he’d conceived it and found the experience enriching.

Many composers use copious markings to indicate their intentions to the performer. If these state the obvious, then the performer empathises with the music and understands it. If they make no sense, the performer had better leave this piece alone.

When I set out to record the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich back in the 1980s, I researched in earnest to locate all available recordings, and discovered some archived ones of the composer on the piano. To my surprise – perhaps to my delight too – I discovered that in many instances he’d deviated considerably from his own tempo markings.

It is, of course, the prerogative of the listener to agree or disagree with our musical ideas. Standards are explicit statements of expected quality in performance where one person’s expectations may differ from those of another. However, to suggest that our musical ideas are arbitrary would be misleading: they have been formulated by informed opinion based on knowledge, experience and considered principles.

We are immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to partner Maxim Vengerov in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto. It has been a journey of discovery and total fulfilment from which we have emerged a great deal wiser.

We hope that listeners will be receptive to the ideas we tried to communicate and derive as much pleasure from listening to this recording as we experienced performing it.