Since he became (at the ripe old age of 17) the youngest contestant to win the much coveted Queen Elizabeth Music Competition in Belgium in 1985, Russian-born Vadim Repin has resisted the temptation to record the concerto repertory that would place him in direct competition with the greatest violinists of the past. Now, at 37, he inaugurates a new contract with Deutsche Gramophon with performances of two of the best known and most demanding concertos: the Beethoven (with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra) and the Brahms (with Riccardo Chially and the Gewandhaus). I have yet to hear the Beethoven, but if this new Brahms is any indication, Repin has nothing to fear from past recorded glories.
So, what does Repin have to tell us about this familiar and often recorded work that has not already been said by the likes of Heifitz and Oistrakh? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The first thing I noticed about this performance was the sound; for it lacks the thick textures and dark, somber tone that one has come to associate with this concerto. My expectation of hearing something like either the incisive, aggressive Heifitz/Reiner or the more solemn and reverential Oistrakh / Klemperer — the two templates for most modern performances — was also instantly contradicted.
Though he is more than equal to its technical demands, Repin's way with this music is surprisingly buoyant and impetuous. In a recent interview, he points out how often the word "dolce" turns up in the score. One hears that sweetness in the warmth of his playing and the ardor and tenderness of his interpretation.
I realize that the Violin Concerto is a work of Brahms's maturity. But surprisingly, Repin and Chially give it a convincingly youthful cast. Though Robert Schumann was the young Brahms's first mentor and champion, I've never heard much of Schumann's influence in his works, least of all the early piano music (where you'd most expect to find it). But I do hear Schumann in the sense of improvisation and spontaneity that animates this performance. In the end, this is just about the sunniest version of the work I've ever heard. That Repin can't resist bravura display — the cadenza is by Heifitz — only adds a dash of spice to the mix.
Over the years, performances of the Double Concerto have been growing mellower, blander, more "autumnal." Or maybe it's just me growing mellower and blander. In any case, my favorite performances of this work remain mono-era and more than fifty years old: Nathan Milstein and Gregor Piatigorsky with Fritz Reiner and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a fully mature Issac Stern and Leonard Rose with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. What both of those performances have in common is exactly what so many more recent versions lack: urgency and drama. The Double Concerto was Brahms' last orchestral work, but that's no reason to present it as if he was already in the grave. I stubbornly continue to prefer a performance in which soloists and orchestra play as if their very lives depend on it.
Mork and Repin present the work as a "concerto grosso," and that approach is not without its virtues. Both soloists project a rich, warm tone, and the dialogue between the two instruments is rendered with a chamber-like sense of detail and intensity. Here, as in the Violin Concerto, Chially is a sympathetic and generous collaborator. But in the end, it's just not enough to compensate for the fatal lack of tension.
So: possibly a great performance of the Violin Concerto and an acceptable, musical one of the Double Concerto (that you just might like more than I did). The sound is spacious, detailed and transparent; perhaps a little undernourished on the bottom (but at least in a way that suits the nature of the performance). Your move.