Brahms Violin Concerto - BBCi

If you like top notch orchestral playing combined with excellent sound quality this new Brahms CD from Linn is definitely one for your collection. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is becoming well known for its innovative performances and this recording is no exception, as they tackle Brahms with all the power of a full orchestra and all the precision that comes with a smaller group.

A big symphonic concerto like the Brahms might seem an odd choice for a chamber orchestra, but the string section of the SCO is so good and full-sounding that it has to be the most impressive aspect of this CD. It's a brave move, too, to undertake this difficult concerto with the soloist as conductor, but Joseph Swensen is highly accomplished in both fields and no matter how much rubato he uses (and he doesn't make it easy for them) the SCO stick to him like glue. As a violinist Swensen doesn't have a huge sound, but he has a great technique and his intonation is excellent. He's especially impressive in Joachim's virtuosic cadenza.

You'd expect the concerto to be the highlight of this CD, but it's actually the Hungarian Dances which steal the show in terms of virtuosity and balance. Brahms originally wrote them for piano duet and the 14 featured here have been orchestrated by Brahms himself and various other composers, including Dvorák. They're all played with a fantastically organic sense of rhythm and the 1st violins shine throughout. Swensen clearly knows what he wants from these pieces stylistically and the result is some brilliant performances. Highlights are no.6 which is full of rhythmic tension; no.20 sees the strings playing with lots of tasteful portamenti and they're spot-on in the high register work; and the most famous of the dances, no.5, features excellent G-string playing from the first violins at the beginning, and some amazing string swells in the middle section. The spirit of this music and its wonderful contrasts of mood are captured perfectly.

In terms of sound quality, the SCO's playing is perfectly suited to Linn's SA-CD format which allows all the instruments to be heard at all times. Linn are specialists in producing top quality audio and those listening to this hybrid CD on a SA-CD player will find a level of definition and clarity close to that of expensive vinyl.

02 August 2004