Brahms and Joachim
Now one of the cornerstones of the violin concerto repertoire, Johannes Brahms’s D major Concerto had a decidedly rocky start in life. Brahms wrote it on holiday at Pörtschach in 1878 and originally planned four movements, including a scherzo, but jettisoned the inner two in favor of what he jokingly called a ‘feeble Adagio’ with a long oboe solo.
His friend Joseph Joachim was always the designated soloist, in fact Brahms even drew on Joachim’s ‘Hungarian’ Concerto for inspiration, especially in the finale. He wanted a fast tempo for this Allegro giocoso but Joachim found it ‘very difficult’ and persuaded him to add the qualifying words ‘ma non troppo vivace’. Such players as Adolf Busch, regarded as Joachim’s successor, and Jascha Heifetz opted for the composer’s original wishes and played it very fast, Busch with a pronounced gipsy inflection.
When Joachim gave the concerto a try-out at the Berlin Hochschule, he was attacked by some of the German newspapers for performing such a ‘barren production’ and making the student orchestra play such ‘unmitigated rubbish’. The premiere in Leipzig on New Year’s Day 1879, with Brahms conducting for Joachim, went better than many people have alleged; but for the first Vienna performance Brahms asked Josef Hellmesberger to take the baton.
Joachim gave the British premiere at London’s Crystal Palace on February 22, 1879, with August Manns conducting; however, the cooling of his friendship with Brahms, who took Joachim’s wife’s side when his marriage collapsed, seems to have put him off campaigning actively for the concerto. Most of his colleagues disliked it: Hellmesberger called it a concerto not for, but against, the violin; meanwhile Pablo Sarasate said he was not going to stand around in the Adagio while the oboe had the best tune in the piece.
Three of Joachim’s pupils, Marie Soldat – dubbed ‘Brahms’s understudy’ by Hans von Bülow – Gabrielle Wietrowetz and Leonora Jackson, born in the year of the work’s premiere, did as much as anything to help the concerto to gain a foothold. The generation of fiddlers including Huberman, Busch and Szigeti then clinched its popularity.
- Joseph Joachim, inscripted to Adolph Busch, The Tully Potter Collection
- Brahms en route to Red Hedgehog Viennese coffee house, by Otto Boehler, The Tully Potter Collection
- Brahms (seated) and Joachim, Lebrecht Music & Arts
- Brahms in the Vienna Library of Dr Victor von Miller, Lebrecht Music & Arts
- The Joachim Quartet, Schmutzer