Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.
Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.
In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”
In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,
Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.
Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.
Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:
Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake
Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:
Barber Violin Concerto
Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:
Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:
J.S. Bach Partita No. 3
Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:
Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.
Tomorrow marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of French violinist Ginette Neveu. At the time of her tragic death at the age of 30 in an airplane crash, Neveu was widely regarded as one of the finest violinists of her generation. Her playing was characterized by an almost otherworldly fire and searing intensity. Her recordings exhibit a natural perfection of phrasing and a soulfulness of sound that cut through the limitations of early phonograph technology. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz described Ginette Neveu’s playing this way:
No one who saw or heard her could forget that impression-the serious concentration, the complete immersion in her task, the burning yet controlled intensity. To speak of technique is pointless because it never served for display-it was always subordinate to a musical goal.
Ginette Neveu was five when she began to study the violin, first with her mother and then with Jules Boucherit, George Enescu, Nadia Boulanger, and Carl Flesch. When she was seven she performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra. At the age of fifteen she won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, beating out 180 other contestants, including David Oistrakh who was awarded the second prize. She helped to popularize the Sibelius Violin Concerto and gave the premiere of the Violin Sonata (Op. 119) by Francis Poulenc.
On October 28, 1949 she was en route to concert engagements in the United States when her Air France flight crashed into a mountain after two failed attempts to make an emergency landing at an airport on São Miguel Island in the Azores. Her accompanist and brother, the pianist Jean-Paul Neveu, was also killed. Following her death, cellist Pablo Casals wrote,
For me her playing has always been one of the greatest revelations of the instruments and of music. To the impression of perfection, balance, and artistic taste, she added in her interpretation, fire and abandon which filled her playing with richness.
Brahms and More
Here is Neveu’s 1948 recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with conductor Issay Dobrowen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Keep listening after the concerto and you’ll hear a collection of shorter pieces: Suk’s Four Pieces, Op. 17 (at 38:16), Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 (at 54:22), Ravel’s Tzigane (at 58:40), Falla’s Danse espagnole (at 1:08:54), and the showpiece Hora staccato by Romanian virtuoso violinist Grigoraş Dinicu (at 1:12:20).
Sibelius Violin Concerto
Here is the final movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with conductor Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra. (You can listen to the first two movements here). The tempo is slightly slower than we often hear, but every note can be heard and there is a powerful sense of a Nordic dance taking flight:
Strauss Violin Sonata
Here is Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18, a soaring, Romantic work by a composer we usually associate with large-scale orchestral tone poems:
Hilary Hahn released an excellent new recording on March 31. The album pairs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 by Belgian virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). In the recording’s official trailer, Hahn mentions that she first learned both pieces around the age of 10 as she was entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There’s also some interesting violin lineage at work: Hahn’s teacher Jascha Brodsky was a student of Eugène Ysaÿe who studied with Vieuxtemps.
Mozart’s Fifth, written when he was 19 years old, has earned the nickname, “The Turkish Concerto” because of the wild “Turkish” dance in the middle of the final movement. We get hints of this moment of joyful spontaneity in the first movement (1:11 below). These moments stand out on this CD, partly because of the stylish playing of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Järvi. On older recordings it is common to hear the orchestra in the background and the solo violin prominently front and center. Here, the orchestra is an equal partner, and the balance is similar to what you would hear in a live concert. There’s a great sense of motion and flow in the Adagio.
You may notice the influence of Hector Berlioz’ music in the Vieuxtemps. (Amazingly, if you listen closely, you can hear what sounds like birds tweeting on the recording before the music begins). Berlioz said, “Vieuxtemps is as remarkable a composer as he is an incomparable virtuoso.” While this statement may seem exaggerated now, it shows how popular Vieuxtemps’ concertos were in their day. This music still occupies an important place in the violin repertoire. In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz says,
Vieuxtemps’ achievement was to rejuvenate the grand concept of the French violin concerto by using the orchestra in a more symphonic manner and by letting the solo violin speak with a more eloquent and impassioned voice. In his Fourth concerto (1849-50) he abandoned the traditional form by inserting a Scherzo and shaping the opening movement freely, almost like an improvisation of the solo violin; there is also a cyclic connection with the Finale.
Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.
Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:
Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.
As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.
The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”
One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.
The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”
The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.
Eight Great Recordings
Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.
Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:
This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:
Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:
As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”
In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.
Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam
Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.
Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.