Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto – Jack Liebeck with Johannes Brahms’s [Orchid Classics] & Isabelle Faust with Verklärte Nacht [Harmonia Mundi]

3 of 5 stars

Jack Liebeck Schoenberg Brahms Violin Concertos

Violin Concerto, Op.36
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77


Isabelle Faust Schoenberg Violin Concerto and Verklärte Nacht

Violin Concerto, Op.36
Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, Op.4

Jack Liebeck Schoenberg Brahms Violin Concertos

Jack Liebeck (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Gourlay

Orchid Classics CD and 24/192 download: ORC100129
Recorded: 15-17 October 2019 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London

Producer – Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer – Dave Rowell


Isabelle Faust Schoenberg Violin Concerto and Verklärte Nacht

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Anne Katharina Schreiber (violin), Antoine Tamestit & Danusha Waskiewicz (violas), Christian Poltéra & Jean-Guihen Queyras (cellos)

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Harmonia Mundi CD and 24/48 download: HMM902341

Recorded: September 2018 & January 2019 at Teldex Studio, Berlin, and Berwaldhallen, Stockholm. Producer – Martin Sauer
Recording Engineer – Tobias Lehmann

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: June 2021
CD No: Orchid Classics ORC100129 & Harmonia Mundi HMM902341
Duration: 77 & 63 minutes



Like so much of the music Schoenberg composed after he abandoned tonality the Violin Concerto isn’t particularly well-known, or – if truth be told – liked, probably because the thought and sound of 12 note rows manipulated in ways that seemingly require a double-first in music and mathematics to understand conjure up images of tuneless discord (the Arnold Schoenberg Centre defines the Concerto thus: “The beginning of each movement is characterised by two overlapping row constellations as a combination of the original row and the inversion, untransposed or transposed by a fifth respectively. In addition, the row constellation that is based on the principal part is initially presented horizontally each time. The row technique cannot be systematised within the movement and reveals numerous irregularities in the interpretation of the strict methodology”!). Added to this, Jascha Heifetz, for whom Schoenberg had originally intended the piece, apparently said it was unplayable, which, given that the notorious double and triple-stopped harmonics would have been child’s play to him, very likely meant he didn’t like it, Even today when violinists tend to be more adventurous it is rarely played and there are very few recordings to choose from. This is a pity because it is a magnificent work, brilliantly orchestrated, full of melody, introspection, spikey rhythms and two marvellous cadenzas, spiced up a with a generous helping of neo-classicism, and, as Jack Liebeck puts it, “There is a troubled passion, depth and darkness…its harshness and great beauty mingle in an incredible dialogue between violin and orchestra”.

The two new versions take very different approaches to marketing the work, with Isabelle Faust offering one of the peaks of high-romanticism, heavily laced with chromaticism, the intensely beautiful Verklärte Nacht – thankfully in its original chamber version – while Jack Liebeck for personal reasons wanted to record the Brahms and decided the Schonberg was the ideal coupling, since for him it ‘seems to follow naturally on from the idiom of (that work)’, indeed one can hear echoes of it.

By contrast with Louis Krasner’s (who gave the first performance in 1940) 30-minute studio account, both artists adopt leisurely tempi, with Faust taking just over 34 and Liebeck just under 35 minutes.

The first movement opens with a poco Allegro section marked quarter-note = 64, leading to poco Animato and then Vivace, both at quarter-note = 72, which appears to give the players little room for manoeuver. Fortunately performers often ignore metronome markings and in the lyrical opening 7 bar phrase, which one might call the first half of the first subject, Liebeck is marginally slower and weightier than Faust, his tone  richer, a lot of which is down to the very much superior high-resolution sound (see below). But in general both adopt tempi that allow the score to move forward without impeding characterisation and each transition is smoothly and naturally negotiated. So there isn’t much to choose between Faust and Liebeck? Well not quite. In those opening bars Liebeck looks inward as he luxuriates in the lower register intervals that leap over the bar lines from a whole to a quarter note (the elegant simplicity of the writing is breathtaking). It is Liebeck who speaks to the listener and then converses with the woodwind, in the Animato you feel the performers are listening to one another, throughout the slightly more relaxed tempi allows the strings to bring greater finesse and variety to the numerous pizzicato passages. Faust doesn’t do anything wrong, the formidable technical demands are effortlessly met, her intonation is immaculate and like Hilary Hahn on DG, she emphasises the neo-classical elements, but it is Liebeck who draws you into the work.

In the Andante gracioso Faust is substantially slower (9.10 versus 8.35) but it is Lieback who uses more tempo variation to mould and sing the melody and better integrates the scherzando elements into a convincing whole, while the BBC SO strings have greater sonority and again so much of this is down to the sound.    

The last movements Prokofiev like main theme is rhythmically sprung by both players, if more emphatic in Liebeck’s hands, by the concise standards of the rest of the work, the extended orchestral exposition lacks tension in Harding’s hands and the performance loses focus. Both artists (Liebeck at 3.00, Strauss at 2.52) under-characterise the move to Alla Marcia and 4/4. The introduction to the accompanied cadenza harks back to the works beautiful opening and here Faust and Harding offer some exceptionally refined playing, indeed this is the only place where they are superior to Liebeck and Gourlay and it is the latter who bring the work to a more powerful conclusion in the brief coda.     

In terms of the conducting and orchestral playing, both bands are fair-to-middling and both conductors have clearly established a close working relationship with the soloist. This is particularly important for Liebeck, given his conversational approach, but the Swedish players also relish Schoenberg’s kaleidoscopic orchestration. What is missing can be heard on Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s account with Kiril Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO Digital Concert Hall) where the orchestral sound, without ever becoming bloated or saturated, is far more imposing and penetrating, the vital woodwind parts more vividly characterised and Petrenko has a greater sense of command.

Turning to the couplings, Verklärte Nacht dates from 1899 and like Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, is best heard in its original version for string sextet, where it’s intimacy of expression and refined textures can be fully appreciated. The works single movement is divided into sections corresponding to the five verses of a patronisingly sexist (alas, par for the course for the era) poem by Richard Dehmel, which in affect form a Rondo. In 1950 the composer said that it ‘does not describe any action or drama, but is limited to drawing nature (sections 1, 3 & 5) and expressing human feelings (2 & 4)’. For human feelings read a woman who – horror of horrors – was proud of herself for having a one-night-stand with a man she fancied as opposed to loved, got pregnant, is deeply repentant and ‘saved’ by another man that she does love, who says he will see the child as his own. Unlike the Violin Concerto there are numerous recordings to choose from, so where do Faust et al (hereafter Faust) sit in terms of its Viennese fin-de- siècle decadence?

The D minor first section opens with an extraordinary Sehr langsam passage where the second viola and cello initially play unaccompanied, repeated pp Ds over which the firsts and then the violins sing a recurring, descending, brooding echt Wagnerian melody liberally marked immer leise, where Faust, using variable vibrato, creates a cool, detached, exquisitely balanced sound-world, when the tempo increases the instrumental lines are clearly defined without any loss of inwardness as the music softens. All the sections of Schwer betont are vividly characterised and most of the markings are observed, although a rit. in the first violin part is curiously ignored, maybe because it brings a moment of expressive largesse at odds with Faust’s conception of the work. The works most famous melody is probably that given to the first cello at the start of the Sehr breit und langsam episode, which portrays the gleaming, glowing universe and the ‘nobility’ of the man mentioned above, which Jean-Guihen Queyras delivers with considerable, if somewhat cool, eloquence. Finally there is Sehr ruhig, where various themes – including the opening, now in D major – are combined to create a translucent, ethereal sound-world, where Faust doesn’t rise above pp and colours and places each note exactly to create gossamer like textures.

So if you want a super-refined, beautifully played account with a degree of emotional reticence then this is an obvious recommendation. There are other ways of playing it, the Emersons with Yo-Y o Ma and Walter Trampler create an alluring, plusher sound and are more emotionally involved and there is a thrusting, echt romantic account from Trampler, Ralph Kirschbaum etc. recorded after the 1981 Santa Fe Festival, but Faust needs to be heard.  

As mentioned above Jack Liebeck thought of the Brahms first and added the Schoenberg. The problem any modern player has with the former is that they are up against the likes of Grumiaux, Heifetz, Kreisler, Kogan, Oistrakh, Perlman, et al who were far greater violinists and they simply can’t compete. Nevertheless Leonid Kogan with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, recorded for British Columbia in 1957, when Kogan was a mere 33, was chosen for comparison. In the short orchestral introduction the Russian’s adopt a more flowing tempo, unlike Gourlay the tension doesn’t sag or the phrasing become laboured and the Philharmonia – which in 1957 was one of the world’s great orchestras – outplay the BBC SO (you need weight and attack in Brahms and they have it in spades). When Kogan enters you immediately know you are listening to a great violinist, unlike Liebeck his tempo variation and rubato sound completely natural, the tone is ravishing (he used two Guarneri del Gesù fiddles) the line smoother and he sings in a way that is wonderfully old-school. At the start of the Adagio to his credit Liebeck almost equals Kogan’s beautiful phrasing but the Philharmonia wind and the quality of the strings as they enter two bars before the soloist make their BBC counterparts sound provincial, after the key change at 3.48 the phrasing becomes disjointed and when the main theme returns unadorned it is Kogan who brings a lump to the throat as he soars over a bed of gorgeous orchestral sound.  In the finale his attack – again at a much faster tempo – is startling and there is a sense of joyful élan, which makes Liebeck and particularly Gourlay sound staid.

With regard to the sound as indicated above, Lieback takes, by some distance, first prize. In the Concerto the Harmonia Mundi CD is two-dimensional, the sound stacked as opposed to deep, the overall balance forward, the woodwind are somewhere in the centre, Faust’s violin tone is the usual thin CD approximation and there is no real projection. Turn to download and there is more body, power and slightly more space around the performers, but 24/48 by today’s standards falls a long way short of what 24/192 and DXD can achieve. Similarly Verklärte Nacht is better on the download, where you can just about make-out it’s a different venue, but all you have to do is put Nona Liddell et al on a 1973 Decca LP (SXLK6660-64) and you realise that this is a series of 0s and 1s, not real instruments and it is difficult to understand why Harmonia Mundi are still selling such low-resolution files. 

By contrast, on CD Liebeck’s tone is richer than Faust’s, the image middle-distance, the inner balance more realistic (this is particularly important because the Schoenberg is full of intricate instrumental lines, all of which should be audible within a believable sound-stage), but turn to the 24/192 download and unlike the Harmonia Mundi the difference is tangible. You can hear the acoustic, the brass bite, the woodwind are more vibrant, the dynamic range is better and Liebeck’s violin and the orchestral string tone are fuller still. 

So perhaps the best thing to do, if you don’t have a high-definition streaming service, is get the best of both worlds by downloading the Verklärte Nacht and Liebeck Schoenberg.

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