Schumann, Violin Concerto (Diary 2016-05-01)

2016-05-01 — Original posting
2016-10-11 — Brushed up for better readability

Listening Diary 2016-05-01

Robert Schumann: Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 1

This is the first of several posts covering works by Robert Schumann (to be published at irregular intervals); this particular CD is the first of a series of three, in which Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov perform Robert Schumann’s three piano trios, one trio per CD, each CD also including one of the three concertos for solo instrument and orchestra by that same composer. Being a fan of all three of these artists, I could not resist buying the entire set. In this short posting, I’ll just deal with the first CD from this set, with Isabelle Faust playing Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 1. The CD includes the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.3 in g minor, op.110. This will be dealt with in a separate posting featuring a comparison with other recordings.

I have a second recording of that concerto, with Christian Tetzlaff and Paavo Järvi, see below. This is a CD that includes the violin concerto by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847), which I discussed in an earlier posting.

Isabelle Faust, Pablo Heras-Casado (2014)

Schumann: Piano Trio #3, Violin Concerto — Faust, Heras-Casado; CD coverRobert SchumannViolin Concerto in d minor, WoO 1; Piano Trio No.3 in g minor, op.110

Isabelle Faust, Pablo Heras-Casado / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (2014)
Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen QueyrasAlexander Melnikov

harmonia mundi France HMC 902196 (CD + DVD, stereo); ℗ 2015
Booklet: 24 pp., fr/en/de
Schumann: Piano Trio #3, Violin Concerto — Faust, Heras-Casado; CD, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


Christian Tetzlaff, Paavo Järvi (2009)

Mendelssohn / Schumann: Violin concertos, Tetzlaff, Järvi, CD, coverRobert Schumann: Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 1; Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra, op.131
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Violin Concerto in e minor, op.64

Christian TetzlaffPaavo Järvi / RSO Frankfurt (live recordings, 2009)

Ondine ODE 1195-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2011
Booklet: 20 pp., en/de
Mendelssohn / Schumann: Violin concertos, Tetzlaff, Järvi, CD, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


The Composition

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)  composed his Violin Concerto in d minor (later assigned WoO 1, i.e., work #1 without opus number) in September/October 1853. It is one of his last major / full compositions and features three movements:

  1. In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo (vigorous tempo, not too fast)
  2. Langsam (slow)
  3. Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell (lively, but not fast)


This is collected from the relevant Wikipedia article: The concerto was written for the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). However, Joachim never performed it: quite to the contrary, he locked it away in the opinion that it showed signs of Schumann’s progressing mental illness. Joachim may also have found the concerto to be “too simple”, considering the virtuosic works by other composers of the time. But primarily, this must have been because the second movement features a theme that later Schumann claimed to have been told by ghosts / spirits / angels while he was already in the mental asylum. There, he started writing variations on this theme, which were later published as his last musical thought (“Ghost” variations, WoO 24).

Joachim apparently was able to convince Schumann’s widow, Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896), and Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) of the “doubtful qualities” of the concerto. So, he kept the manuscript under lock and ultimately deposited it in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. In his will he stated that the work should be neither played nor published until 100 years after the composer’s death, i.e. until 1956.

A convoluted story ensued, involving Joachim’s grand-nieces, as well as the violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) who played it in its entirety privately. But Menuhin was not allowed to perform it in public, as the German government (in 1937) insisted that the world premiere would be given by a German. Ultimately, it was the violinist Georg Kulenkampff (1898 – 1948) who premiered the concerto in 1937, with the Berlin Philharmonic. Thereafter, the concerto was adapted to the concert repertoire only very slowly. However, by now, a fair number of recordings are available.


Personal note: It’s true that this is not a typical virtuoso concerto like those many other ones from the first half of the 19th century. One should note that Niccolò Paganini, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and many others had already passed away in 1853. However, this does not imply that this concerto is of minor value: it just has different qualities. Actually, in many passages it is amazingly close in spirit to Johannes BrahmsViolin Concerto in D major, op.77. Brahms composed his concerto in 1878 (over 40 years after Schumann’s!) and dedicated it to Joseph Joachim. Still, Brahms’ concerto shares the lyricism (and the absence of extroverted virtuosity) with Schumann’s predecessor concerto.

Also, the “ghost” theme is not a sign of a decaying musical mind. Quite to the contrary: the fact that he was able to write it down points to one of Schumann’s last lucid moments. That aside, back-projecting “signs of madness” into the simpler (if not fragmentary) predecessor of that theme in the slow movement of this concerto is utter nonsense. One can maybe understand this in the context of the then fashionable spiritual sessions and similar phenomena (and to the lack of knowledge about the nature of mental illnesses).

Which WoO Number?

Both recordings refer to the violin concerto as WoO 1. Wikipedia refers to the same concerto as WoO 23. This is information from “Works without Opus number listed by Hofmann/Keil“, a publication that tried assigning WoO numbers in chronological order. That’s an attempt which was prone to failure (see also the disaster with Köchel catalogue for Mozart’s oeuvre!). This reference should properly be referred to as “H/K WoO 23“, in order to avoid ambiguity. For the time being, I’ll keep referring to the concerto as WoO 1, i.e., using the initial WoO assignment.

The Interpretations

Let me just start with stating that the two interpretations above are fairly close in attitude & style (including tempo, general expression); however, I definitely prefer Isabelle Faust’s interpretation:

Christian TetzlaffPaavo JärviRSO Frankfurt

Christian Tetzlaff plays on his modern violin by Peter Greiner, Paavo Järvi conducts an orchestra that is substantially bigger than the one in the competing recording. Like the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Paavo Järvi asks for explicit, “al fresco” dynamics. However, the bigger ensemble softens / partially covers the presence of the drums, as well as the “al fresco” effect itself. Still, for the orchestral part, this is definitely an excellent recording.

I. In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo

Duration: 14’10”
At the entrance of the solo, Tetzlaff plays no audible vibrato. Unfortunately, this is limited to episodes: as soon as he means to play espressivo, he is using a fairly strong and often relatively nervous vibrato. I feel that this defeats the effect. To me, the vibrato is the weakest part of this recording. Compared to Isabelle Faust, Tetzlaff seems more focused on producing what he considers a nice, full sound.

II. Langsam

Duration: 5’41
More so than in the first movement, the vibrato really hurts here—also in the orchestra, but first and foremost in the solo part. Where Christian Tetzlaff wants to play espressivo (that’s pretty much everywhere in this movement!), he does so by using an even stronger and omnipresent vibrato. This may sound OK in the context of traditional recordings / interpretations, but compared to Isabelle Faust’s playing, this definitely falls off. Also, there is a certain tendency towards “belly notes” (< >) that I really don’t like. It seems that Tetzlaff wants to use “al fresco” dynamics, too. But the effect (in my opinion) is exaggerated, in that some notes just stand out too much, appear overly accentuated.

III. Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell

Duration: 9’20”
Nothing new here: the playing per se is not bad, but the vibrato in the solo part hurts (my ear). Even at a relatively fast pace, Tetzlaff vibrates strongly in peak notes, as well as of course in all the lyrical passages. The tempo is substantially faster, lighter than Isabelle Faust’s recording, see below.

Overall Duration: 29’10”
3.7 (4 / 3 / 4)
Recommendation: Only if you like traditional violin playing with strong vibrato. But then you may as well want to look around, to see how other violinists perform…

Isabelle Faust, Pablo Heras-Casado / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

First and foremost: this recording comes in two forms: there is also a DVD with a live recording from the Berliner Philharmonie. It is very nice to watch and experience, to see Isabelle Faust’s unpretentious appearance and playing, as well as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado in live action! Needless to say: the sound in the studio recording for the CD is substantially better, features better transparency, more direct dynamics, plasticity and balance. However, overall, the two media are complementing each other nicely.

I should also mention that this recording is made at a slightly lower pitch than Tetzlaff’s: the sleeve mentions a’ = 440Hz. So, I suspect that the RSO Frankfurt in the recording above plays at around a’ = 445 Hz. Isabelle Faust is playing the Stradivari “La belle au bois dormant” (“Dornröschen“) from 1704. Note: the following remarks were based on the CD version, not on the DVD.

I. In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo

Duration: 15’11”
As mentioned, the playing style here is close to that of the previous recording. However, thanks to the smaller ensemble, the “al fresco” effect (vivid dynamics, strength of sforzati, etc.) is stronger, more explicit. Also, the drums appear stronger, more direct, and the sound in general is more detailed and transparent. Isabelle Faust’s playing is excellent, very direct, very often without any vibrato, never shy of playing empty (gut) strings. Where she wants to highlight a note, she does use vibrato—but that vibrato is more natural, often / typically evolving towards the end or the center of a long note: I can’t think of an instance where the vibrato appeared too strong or obtrusive. Perfect sound is not the goal here, but the expression—by means other than vibrato, rather through more explicit dynamics.

II. Langsam

Duration: 5’24”
Isabelle Faust clearly proves that expressive playing does not require excess amounts of vibrato! Her playing exhibits warmth and intimacy, careful phrasing (without excess accentuation), and she uses vibrato selectively and moderately. To me, this is definitely the more touching of the two recordings.

III. Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell

Duration: 11’45”
Apart from the much more controlled and natural vibrato, the biggest contrast is in the tempo. Isabelle Faust / Pablo Heras-Casado take the “doch nicht schnell” (but not fast) serious! It’s definitely not fast (and not meant to be), and the “Lebhaft” (lively) is interpreted as the heavier, Rhenish type of liveliness. This is certainly appropriate: at 43, by the time of this composition, Schumann had grown out of his youth. In this recording, vivacity is achieved also through lively “al fresco” dynamics / refreshing accentuation and agogics. Needless to say: Isabelle Faust’s playing is superb, clean, and of utmost tonal purity. Yes, her playing is virtuosic, too. However, the slower pace allows her to be more expressive. To me, this comes from the heart (both Schumann’s and Isabelle Faust’s), reaching out to the listener’s heart…excellent!

Overall Duration: 32’19”
5.0 (5 / 5 / 5)
Recommendation: Yes, definitely, and without hesitation!

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