Brahms and Joachim

May 6, 2018, 2:02 PM · On Friday we got last-minute tickets to go hear Ray Chen play Brahms with the San Francisco Symphony. I'd never heard him live and was curious.

It wasn't the most transcendent concert I've ever been to. Ray's performance, while fine, wasn't earth-shattering for me. (Not sure what would have been–-I've been living with this piece in my head for so long at this point that Joachim would have to come back from the dead for it to feel new, perhaps.) And the last half was Prokofiev 3, which is just heavy. (I would have swapped with Brahms and finished on a happier note.)

And yet! Ray was playing the Joachim Strad...the instrument on which this concerto was premiered in Leipzig. Just thinking about that gives me chills...and makes me wish we'd splurged on tickets for optimal acoustics, instead of buying the cheap seats on the side whence we can watch all the orchestral shenanigans (at the expense of sound). Even when you're a virtuoso of Ray's caliber, that instrument must be somewhat humbling to play.

Just thought I'd share.

Replies (16)

May 6, 2018, 2:04 PM · OK, hearing the Brahms concerto played on the Joachim Strad is very cool!
May 6, 2018, 2:13 PM · I just love going to live concerts. Be grateful you can go to a professional symphony. We don’t get those so often where I am. Don’t get me wrong... we do have community and local performance that rivals a professional symphony, but not perhaps quite the caliber of the SF Symphony.
May 6, 2018, 3:03 PM · Pete, absolutely. We are lucky here, not just due to SFS but also St Lawrence Quartet, New Century Chamber Orchestra, etc.
May 6, 2018, 3:11 PM · I am sure you are, Katie!! How could you not be grateful to have access to some of the finest symphonies in the world!

I do hope to get the chance to attend one someday.

May 6, 2018, 4:10 PM · Okay, maybe it wasn't the instrument Joachim used to play the Brahms. I guess he owned a handful of Strads (polygamous!) and might have actually used the one owned by Si-hon Ma (https://www.thestrad.com/new-england-conservatory-receives-joachim-ma-stradivarius-violin-from-si-hon-ma-estate/4059.article). Still cool.
May 6, 2018, 5:21 PM · I heard the Si-hon Ma strad in a performance of the Adams concerto. It’s a great sounding instrument that really projects over an orchestra. On a side note I attended a performance of the Brahms a couple weeks ago in Boston. It was paired with Prokofiev 5th. It seems like Brahms and Prokofiev go together.
May 6, 2018, 7:13 PM · I think they don't go together, and that's probably the point.
May 7, 2018, 6:52 AM · My concerto performance, in the Fall of 1966, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago was graced by my renting a Peter Guarnarius violin for 3 days. I paid the owner a fee of $25.00 per day for using the instrument. Hated to give it back.
Edited: May 8, 2018, 3:00 PM · Every Monday morning, for a couple of hours, I play in a small string ensemble (non-performing) in the concert salon at Bristol Music Club. On the wall looking down on us as we play is a portrait of Joachim holding one of his Strads. I don't know whether it is an effect of the light but sometimes I get the impression that his expression changes slightly during our playing.

Joachim was the first President of Bristol Music Club, founded in 1903. One of his descendants was the guest of honour at the Club's centenary celebration in 2003.

Edited: May 7, 2018, 4:04 PM · Brahms + Joachim + Strad = https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lV_YXtUs_Ow.
May 7, 2018, 7:35 PM · Wow, I'd literally trade an arm and leg to see the Brahms on the Joachim Strad. The Brahms VS is my all time favorite. i assume he played the Joachim cadenza as well?
May 15, 2018, 8:12 AM · How wonderful it would have been to hear Joachim play the Brahms Concerto on the great violinist's own violin.

However, there is something unique, I think, about Brahms's music, especially a piece like the Violin Concerto. Like most of us, I've got my own favorite performances (Francescatti & Ormandy, Oistrakh, etc., etc., etc.).

However, I'm not sure I've ever been totally, completely satisfied with anyone's performance of the perhaps hundreds I've ever heard (live and recorded). There is something about Brahms that is elusive and near impossible to capture.

Virgil Thomson, perhaps, said it best:

"Almost nobody's rendition of it [Brahms's symphonic music] is thoroughly satisfactory....there is no reason to suppose that so experienced and so consecrated a musician as Brahms was basically incoherent in thought. It is far more likely that his exact poetic temper, being profoundly personal, escapes us."

May 15, 2018, 8:51 AM · Sander, I agree. And I found the comment on this review to be validating. This feels like the performance I saw (not the ecstatic review).

https://sfcv.org/reviews/san-francisco-symphony/ray-chen-raises-the-roof-at-sf-symphony

I should point out that I was blaming it on the seats--but we've twice seen Gil Shaham from the same vantage point and his performances (Bartok, Prokofiev) didn't suffer. Perhaps it has something to do with the integrative nature of the concerto. (As compared to a more traditional showpiece)

May 15, 2018, 9:30 AM · Perhaps this for the philosopher, but which is closer: Joachim strad on modern strings and shoulder rest, or a copy of the Joachim strad with the type of gut strings and chin rest used by Joachim?

Can we ever step into the same river twice?

May 19, 2018, 7:24 AM · I find it amazing to think that those high soaring phrases, and the devilsh arpeggios, were played on a gut E-string!
May 19, 2018, 1:29 PM · In my experience a gut E can have a more vocal quality then a steel string, and can project just as well. I think that in Joachim's day orchestras weren't as loud as they are today (the brass didn't have such large bores, for example), and the string sections would have used gut. I have no difficulty in visualising Joachim and other soloists projecting well over the orchestra. The converse is, if they didn't then they wouldn't have much of a career as a soloist!

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