Vienna 1895 / America 1896 / 1900s / 1920s / 1930s / Australia 1937 / 1940s / Neville Cardus / Alexander Ruppa

Neville Cardus

The famous English critic Neville Cardus reviews three performances of the Brahms violin concerto.

Neville Cardus reviews the Brahms violin concerto (1)

Mars and Jupiter were in conjunction at Queen’s Hall; and I leave it to Sir Thomas Beecham and Huberman to settle which of them was Mars and which Jupiter. The performance of the Brahms concerto given on this occasion by these two artists and the London Philharmonic Orchestra was one of the most balanced and comprehensive I have heard. Greatness of style and fineness of style; energy concentrated into eloquent lines, each alive with the current of Huberman’s temperament, and each controlled by Sir Thomas’s musical instinct; the whole conception set against a warm realised orchestral background. It was a definitive performance.

The playing of the orchestra calls for immediate attention in this notice, because for the first time for many years it enabled me to appreciate the beauties of Brahms’s scoring, particularly at that awkward beginning of the slow movement, where the harmonies in the wind instruments implore the most delicate adjustment and so seldom receive it. Sir Thomas and his orchestra seemed to solve the problems naturally, so that the music affected the imagination with a sort of autumn brownness, through which the oboe sang its solitary tune (it was worth a long journey to hear Leon Goossens play it.)

The warmth and delicacy of this introduction to the slow movement made me almost tremble that Huberman’s tone, which can cut like a sword, would enter abruptly and rip the texture. But his tone did not enter – it descended upon the nest of singing-birds light as air; I have never before heard Huberman’s tone as felicitous as this. Then, as the violin part wove its ornamentation, Huberman gave to the movement a quality it seldom possesses in a performance by any other violinist known to me. With Kreisler, even this movement remains on the plane of the miniature and the pensive, an intermezzo after the big stride of the first movement. So easily, too, can the ornamentation of the violin seem just so many dexterous figures added to the general instrumental tissue from the outside, so to say. Huberman transformed intricacy into a free-floating melody, growing and expanding all the time. But, more remarkable, he infused into the general mazefulness which is always Brahms’s most obvious contribution to the movement – he infused a deeper note, a keener intellectuality, than is usually there. This was done by means of a firm grasp of the patterns or periods of ornaments, and by a tone which, though thoroughly musical and expressive in shading, never became sensuous, let alone sentimental. As a consequence, we felt throughout the adagio a certain strength and austerity; this was the proper Brahms of the adagio. The lovely enchanted wood is there, of course, and the nest of singing-birds. But a composer with a mind meditates in the wood, and meditates gravely, beautifully – and not merely comfortably. The crescendo in the adagio is strongly written as well as poetically written: Huberman made it sound that way. He was in far better mood spiritually and technically even than at Manchester a week or two ago in the same work; he was blessed now by the perfect orchestral setting.

The tempi of the first movement were finely established and controlled by Sir Thomas; the music suffered no changes of gear. The rondo finale was more than a dance this time; at any rate not only limbs danced but also mind and the senses. And how delightful was the change into the flowing happy tune of the middle section; the movement transcended a formal rondo; it became almost a tone-picture of a gipsy scene with the gipsies all above life-size, and drunk. Two faults only could be found in Huberman’s performance – an occasional acid high note and his habit, when the first movement begins orchestrally, of tuning his fiddle quietly and emulating for a few bars the actions of a violinist who is actually playing and taking part with the others in the introduction. This habit spoils the illusion we should get when the soloist enters with his upward flick of the noose of notes. When we see Huberman bowing and fingering during the introduction, it is as though we were catching a glimpse of some actor in the wings waiting for his cue – ‘discovered’ through a gap or misfit in the scenery.


Neville Cardus reviews the Brahms violin concerto (2)

The Hallé Concert was the greatest for many years; it received inspiration from Huberman, whose performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto has seldom if ever been matched in this city for intensity. To call it a performance is banal; it was a spiritual experience, a purification, vouchsafed to us by a noble artist who has come to wisdom through suffering by finding in beauty not merely an anodyne but a new and abiding principle of life.

Huberman’s playing was possessed; it transcended ordinary violin values. Somebody was head to remark that the tone here and there became thin. And somebody will get to heaven one day and remark that an angel’s halo is not on straight. The intensity of the adagio elevated to the profoundest poetry a movement which most players, including Kreisler, make into nothing but a lovely cradle song. The audience knew that a musical experience of no ordinary kind was occurring; seldom have I seen a great crowd so moved and intent. Huberman put his heart and soul into the slow movement; the playing told us of the thorn in the rose, the disillusionment that waits for all of us somewhere – and of the consolation that time and reflection will bring. And then, in the gusto of the last movement, the playing became gloriously sane, as though to tell us: ‘The world goes on, friends; there is work to do, and simple things for you.’ Such an artist as Huberman makes a concert a ‘third of life’, a Prospero’s term; we must hear him again and often.

The evening also proved that Sir Landon Ronald is still one of the few conductors of our day who can compel an orchestra to sing; for him music is first and last a concourse of lovely sounds. He lends to the instrumentalists his own lyrical warmth and soothness; his phrasing is spacious rather than intense, and he has the art of mingling sensuous sound with elegance of form. Sir Landon is at the extreme of Huberman. Huberman is a violinist only because the instrument happens to be his means of self-expression. Huberman’s spirit must always be searching behind the show of sensuous tone to some elusive ultimate truth. And because they are different in aesthetic outlook and feeling Sir Landon and Huberman make a satisfactory pair; it is in contrarieties that, as the forgotten Hegel pointed out, we find unity and identity. Sir Landon and Huberman between them solve the problem of that dualism in Brahms which is the composer’s most arresting point. Brahms was a romantic, a comfortable man of feeling, who often wore the gown and robes of classicism. In the Violin Concerto we have alluring gemütlich melodies frequently dressed in austerity – until we reach the finale, where the assimilated Hungarian rhythms are just the thing to stir the essential temper of Huberman, a temper that is only disciplined, not expelled, by culture and thoughtfulness.

Sir Landon attended to the beauty of Brahms, to the sensitively blended woodwind writing, to the gorgeous bravery of the strings, and, to the brown tints of brass and the lower strings. Against a romantic texture, woven with skill and sympathy by the Hallé Orchestra, Huberman played in his own revelatory way. His tone was not of the rich, yielding kind which goes with the superficial contemporary view of Brahms, as a composer of a middle-aged, uncle-ish softness of disposition; Huberman tightened up, so to say, the thinking parts of the work; his tone had a rare keenness and penetration. Not that he was at all cold or aloof; far from it. He did not give us the embracing girth and geniality of Brahms – his conception of the work clearly had no room for these amiable qualities; but he endowed the music with a striking significance in places where many times other violinists discover only conventional working-out devices. His treatment of figuration was beyond praise. Seldom have I heard Brahms’s knotty broken-passage sequences played with so much meaning as Huberman got out of them now. There was no mere marking time in these passages until the next stretch of lyrical song. The figuration was vital in every note, and its freedom gave wings to the musical imagination, so that the return to melody seemed almost a curb to imagination, because of melody’s need for a steady and logical order of notes.

In the adagio Sir Landon did what few conductors seem able to do; he blended most tastefully the opening parts of the woodwind and horns with the oboe. A finer piece of concerto conducting could not easily be imagined. The concerto indeed was heard at its biggest and greatest; maybe it will never be heard again in our lifetime so fully presented. Huberman was given a tribute of rare eloquence by an audience which was obviously stirred to deep feelings. He is the first of violinists for intensity of vision, for the insight into music that comes of experience of life, for the reconciling power that art gives to a man who has found beauty through great stress of soul. …


Neville Cardus reviews the Brahms violin concerto (3)

Overture – Coriolan, Op. 62 (Beethoven)
Symphony in G minor (E. J. Moeran)
Concerto in D major, Op. 77, for Violin and Orchestra (Brahms)

The large but not crowded audience were so determined to hear Huberman that not even the presence of a new symphony in the programme kept them away. Here is a Machiavellian idea for the consideration of the committee; music not by Beethoven or Brahms, music even composed within living memory, could easily be disseminated amongst the Hallé audiences under cover of a celebrated soloist. The interloper at this concert, E. J. Morean’s symphony, is not outrageously modern: it is actually reactionary enough to go in for melodies. …

After the interval again Huberman played the main protagonist’s part in the Brahms Concerto. That is exactly what he does with the work, transforms it into a drama, an adventure of the spirit. The first part of the evening and the interval scarcely kindled the atmosphere, and though the interpretation was one that nobody but Huberman could have given us, the wonderful experience of a year or two ago in the same work was not repeated. To say this much is perhaps a compliment; for Huberman does not allow his art to become routined or standardised. The older an artist grows the less patience he has with the easy, sensuous effects of his medium. From the point of view of intellectual penetration, of a comprehensive survey of the concerto’s abounding musical life, this performance surpassed any I can remember at the moment. Maybe the ordinary ear craved now and again for a more palpable romanticism of expression and a richer tone. With Huberman tone is temperament and character; it is not a fixed quality which he applies from the outside. I think that no experienced listener would deny that this was a Brahms of exceptional strength of fibre and largeness of mind. There was none of the usual gemütlich softness; even the slow movement left the familiar cradle and seemed to grow in subtlety of reflection. The tone of the violin had rare intensity in the soft, winding figuration; and the rising melodic crescendo at the end, then the sighing, broken cadences, were done without the slightest exaggeration. This was playing of a man who has no need any longer to assert himself. The playing summed up the virtuoso’s entire range, but not once were we conscious of the virtuoso’s appeal to us; the technique was placed at the disposal of Brahms; indeed, the uncommon merit of Huberman’s interpretation was that it kept thoroughly to the style of the concerto form – he played with the orchestra and not against it.

The first movement is one of the composer’s most powerful pieces of work, fit to rank in concentrated musical thought with the first movements of the C minor Symphony and the D minor Piano Concerto. Also it nearly exhausts the violin’s technical scope. Dr Sargent controlled the orchestra judiciously in all the three movements – though possibly the opening of the adagio dragged a little. But in the allegro he was especially good, because he achieved a driving energy which gave the soloist room for extraordinary variety and flexibility of phrase and attack. Huberman never emphasises individual parts at the expense of the whole; no other violinist of the present day shares his musical instinct, his feeling for the logic of a great composer’s arguments. His entrance into the allegro was vehement; it was a sort of passionate scaling of the rock. Afterwards the intricate figuration ran as though keen fire was being generated along the swirling lines, until a magnificent broadening of style brought us to the second subject. Now followed the upward leaps, shooting sparks of tone, brave and reckless, with the subsequent trills and sequences and stabbing staccato chords. Has anybody ever heard a Brahms of more exultant energy than this? As I listened to Huberman in this movement, a line of Hazlitt’s returned to mind – ‘phrases like sparkles thrown off from an imagination fired by the rapidity of its own motion’. The finale rather missed the gipsy geniality of dance Huberman brings to it most times – which was a pity, for the performance as a whole had taken place on a level of imagination so lofty that it deserved more than brilliance and agility as its end.

The Hallé Orchestra know their Brahms, and though the playing in the slow movement did not unfailingly match Huberman’s incredible soft intensity of tone – and where is the orchestra that could have matched it? there were many lovely instances of blended colour. The difficult problems of balance of the instruments at the opening of the slow movement were solved admirably – much to Dr Sargent’s credit.

On this page: