Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the Serenade No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. (video frame/ASO)

Review: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Robert McDuffie

ATLANTA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
April 29, 2021

Robert Spano, conductor
Robert McDuffie, violin
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16

MARK GRESHAM | 30 APR 2021

A native of Macon, Georgia, violinist Robert McDuffie was the guest soloist in this week’s all-Brahms virtual concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano. They opened the program with a familiar favorite, Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77.

Composed in 1878, the Violin Concerto was dedicated to Brahms’ friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who would come to declare it one of the four great German violin concertos along with those of Beethoven, Bruch and Mendelssohn.


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Not surprising that when Joachim premiered it in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, with Brahms conducting, he insisted on opening the concert with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The two concertos are both in D major, and do share some other interesting similarities. More distinguishing is that while Brahms gave his concerto the same sense of grandeur as Beethoven’s, he successfully melded that with lyrical melodies and the flavors and folk rhythms of Joachim’s native Hungary. In short, Joachim was on target in his assessment and Brahms’ Violin Concerto, like Beethoven’s, has been a favorite of violin soloists ever since.

Macon-born violinist Robert McDuffie performs Brahms' "Violin Concerto" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano. (video frame/ASO)

Macon-born violinist Robert McDuffie performs Brahms’ “Violin Concerto” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano. (video frame/ASO)

McDuffie’s robust manner of playing suits this challenging work, in both its passionate and capricious passages. He visibly leans into the violin – watch how he will anchor his feet to do so. There is nothing cloying;y sweet about his playing. An underlying energy underscores dolce passages, and where the music calls for it a vigorous edge lets you know that bow, rosin and strings are there in the most visceral, physical sense.

Brahms’ rich orchestration provides a solid foundation for a virtuoso violin part, but not mere accompaniment. Soloist and orchestra are more like full partners in symphonic expression. SO the “presence” of McDuffie’s sound is such that he doesn’t disappear in the texture (and I’m speaking of past live performances of his I’ve heard as well, since balances in recording a virtual video concert can be technically addressed). I especially enjoyed the third movement – perhaps a matter of long-time personal preference among them as much as the performance itself, though both elements factored in for me.

McDuffie fans will want to know he is scheduled to be in residence at Aspen Music Festival this summer, August 9 – 15, 2021, Where Spano is also music director.


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Brahms composed his Serenade No. 2 on A major, Op 16, in 1858–59, almost 20 years before his Violin Concerto. He conducted the first performance himself in Hamburg on February 10, 1860. He did, however, revise it somewhat in 1875, still prior to composing the Violin Concerto.

I think it a mistake to assert that the two serenades, Op. 10 and 16, were merely studies for his symphonies and other orchestral works like the Violin Concerto, despite Brahms simultaneously following in Beethoven’s footsteps and being chased by his enormous shadow at the same time. Despite their youthful origins, and Brahms’ essential inexperience with orchestral writing prior to them, these serenades fall clearly into the tradition of Mozart’s serenades and divertimentos, like Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Opus 20 and Schubert’s Octet in F major, D. 803 – lighter fare than Brahms’ symphonies, but masterworks in their own right.


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The Serenade No. 2 is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, violas, cellos, and basses. The absence of violins means that the woodwinds take the foreground and are assigned the principal melodic ideas. Instead of substituting for the violins, then, overall, the violas continue to play the kind of figures they might be anticipated to play as if the violins were still there. All of this further emphasizes the work’s connections to Mozart’s wonderful serenades for winds. This kind of scoring led Brahms to explore new combinations of wind colors that would influence his later orchestral works.

For a example, we can return to the opening 29 bars of the Adagio second movement of the Violin Concerto, which is winds only, and features and extended solo by the first oboe for the entire passage, not the solo violin – a fact that caused violinist Pablo de Sarasate to refuse to perform the concerto.



Despite Saraste’s objection, it was a great decision on the part of Brahms, offering a refreshing change of color in that moment that certainly hearkens back to his second Serenade, and one can hear some of the connectivity found in Spano’s pairing of the Violin Concerto with the Serenade No. 2 in this concert that goes beyond both simply being works composed by Brahms.

Brahms wrote five movements for this Serenade, and the overall performance time runs about a half hour. The opening “Allegro moderato” and ensuing “Scherzo (Vivace)” are full of Brahmsian rhythmic games, the latter even more playful. The centerpiece, however, is the “Adagio non troppo” that overwhelmed Clara Schumann, who wrote to Brahms:

What can I say to you about the Adagio? … I cannot find the words to express the joy it has given me, and yet you want me to write at length! It is difficult for me to dissect what I feel; I can only imagine something beautiful, as though I were gazing at each filament of a lovely, rare flower.

Clara also found the “Quasi Minuet” fourth movement, with its lilting dance rhythms, to be charming if a little Haydnesque for her tastes. For the “Allegro” finale, Brahms chose to write a rather straightforward, cheerful Rondo, at last including the piccolo (who is obliged to sit out the first four movements) for extra brightness.

Spano and the ASO gave the Serenade No. 2 a truly delightful performance. ■


Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer for EarRelevant. He has been a music journalist for over 30 years, and a composer of music for much longer than that.

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