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.
A pop song about the prominent violinists of the day? It seems hard to imagine now. But around 1921 George and Ira Gershwin wrote Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha, a lighthearted ditty about four great Jewish Russian violinists who were well known at the time: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobsen. The lyric also refers to “Fritz” (Kreisler) and the legendary teacher Leopold Auer. According to biographer Charles Schwartz, George Gershwin enjoyed playing the song at parties whenever one of the violinists who inspired the title was present.
Heifetz needs no introduction, but who are the others? Born in 1891, Mischa Elman is remembered for his rich, golden tone, expressive portamento, and tendency towards Romantic phrasing which occasionally bent the rhythm. Here is his recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Here is a 1954 recording of Elman performing Dvořák’s Humoresque.
Toscha Seidel’s solo career was, perhaps unfairly, overshadowed by Heifetz. But we can hear the passionate intensity of his playing on recordings like this 1945 live performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Seidel eventually settled in California and became a studio soloist for Hollywood films. Listen to this music from the 1939 film Intermezzo which starred Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman.
Sascha Jacobsen is another violinist whose career was overshadowed by Heifetz. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz claims that Jacobsen was born in New York in 1897 and that his manager tried to turn him into a “Russian fiddler” for publicity purposes. In the 1940s he served as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was the teacher of Zvi Zeitlin. Here is a 1913 recording of Jacobsen performing Handel.
And now here is the Gershwins’ humorous snapshot of early twentieth century violin history:
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.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of influential Hungarian-born violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch (1873-1944). As a teacher, Flesch produced some of the twentieth century’s most notable violinists, including Henryk Szeryng, Ginette Neveu, Josef Hassid, Ivry Gitlis, and Ida Haendel. His book, Art of Violin Playing and his Scale System are still used today.
Boris Schwartz, a student of Flesch and the author of Great Masters of the Violin, writes:
His dominant quality seemed German, marked by a classical approach to music based on scholarly study, purity of style devoid of showmanship, a sturdy sense of rhythm tending toward slow tempos, and a deliberate objectivity of interpretation.
Schwartz stresses that Flesch’s approach to playing and teaching was deeply intellectual, often at the expense of “emotion” and “impulse”. “Use your head for your technique and your heart for your music” was one of Flesch’s mottos. He modernized violin technique, helping students to analyze their own problems and develop solutions. A master of well-thought-out fingerings, Flesch collected and catalogued possible fingerings for various passages in the violin repertoire.
In the final years of his life, Carl Flesch fled the Nazis, and settled eventually in Switzerland. In 1931, following the stock market crash of 1929, Flesch was forced to sell his 1725 “Brancaccio” Stradivarius. He replaced the Strad with a fine Petrus Guarnerius violin.
Here is Flesch playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 20. The piano accompaniment was written by Polish pianist Ignace Strasfogel:
Here is a singing, Romantic 1936 performance of Handel’s Violin Sonata in A major:
Flesch called the Beethoven Violin Concerto,
One of the most difficult works because it is built on introspection. The first movement consists almost entirely of embellishments, of passing notes into which one must put expression and life. Most of the time one hears it played like an etude-there are not three or four violinists in existence who play it well.
Here is his 1943 recording with the Lucern Orchestra:
Here is Jota by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla: