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:
Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler, the American Masters documentary which aired last week on PBS, offers an inside look at the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential violinists. The program includes rare film and audio clips and features interviews with prominent contemporary violinists and former Heifetz students. It follows Heifetz from child prodigy roots in Russia, where he was a student of Leopold Auer at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to his immigration to the United States and longtime residence in Southern California. In addition to his private and somewhat lonely personal temperament, the documentary highlights Heifetz’s rigorous sense of discipline and emphasis on scales.
Jascha Heifetz raised the bar for all violinists who followed, his name becoming synonymous with technical perfection. His recordings suggest an exhilarating sense of pushing limits…staying right “on the edge” without ever falling. This quality seems to have been present from the beginning. As the story goes, the young Jascha launched into Paganini’s Moto perpetuo at such a stunningly fast tempo that Leopold Auer gasped, saying, “He doesn’t even realize that it can’t be played that fast.” Heifetz’s playing transcended sentimentality, unleashing raw power and blinding intensity.
A Sample of Heifetz Recordings
The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:
The Sibelius Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960:
Chaconne, From Partita No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach:
The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy:
Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So:
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.
Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.
That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874.Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”
In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.
One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.
Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
In September, Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint released a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, accompanied by conductor Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. If you already own a thousand recordings of the Tchaikovsky, there are good reasons to also include this CD in your collection. Quint offers a distinctive and introspective performance, which emphasizes a rounded, singing tone, even in the most difficult passages of the first movement’s cadenza. He also includes Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard original final movement.
As Philippe Quint explains in this interview, Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, among others. Auer considered the third movement to be “unviolinistic” and set the concerto aside. Tchaikovsky withdrew the dedication and rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who gave an ill-fated premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Leopold Auer later revised the final movement and this is the version we almost always hear performed.
Listen to Quint’s performance of the first and second movements and the standard Auer version of the third movement. Then compare it with Tchaikovsky’s original version of the final movement (below). The influence of ballet seems to be just below the surface in much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout ballet scores like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky often repeats short, symmetrical phrases. We hear a similar kind of repetition in the third movement of the Violin Concerto (1:01-1:09, for example). Auer condensed the score, cutting these repeated passages.
Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2
This recording also includes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894).Arensky, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, dedicated the Quartet to the memory of Tchaikovsky. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Legend, No. 5from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. Arensky’s Quartet features the unusual combination of violin, viola and two cellos. Here are the first, second and third movements.
Let’s finish out the week with a few recordings of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary violinists. Infused with elegance, style and thoughtful musicianship, Milstein’s playing never sounds dated. These recordings demonstrate his ability to draw out the most ringing tone from the violin, using the speed and energy of the bow. The purity of his intonation and subtle, well controlled vibrato remain impressive.
Milstein, who was born in Russia and spent much of his life in the United States, was one of the last students of Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. Throughout his life, he was known for constantly finding new ways to approach technical and musical problems. He never stopped experimenting and learning, and as a result, his playing remained at a high level into old age. He performed his final recital at the age of 82.
We’ll start with a 1957 recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53 with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Legendary Ukrainian violinist and teacher Abram Shtern passed away last week at the age of 96. Shtern was concertmaster and professor in Kiev before emigrating to the United States in 1990 and settling in Los Angeles. He represented one of the last direct links to the tradition of Leopold Auer, the teacher of Heifetz, Milstein and others.
For much of his career, Shtern stayed out of the spotlight, but he was deeply respected within the violin world. Isaac Stern said:
[quote]Oh, how he played! This man never leaves behind what the music means and such enthusiasm – he not only loves music but also he lives FOR music! He is an incredible master-musician.[/quote]
Here is a 1971 recording of Abram Shtern playing the solo from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake:
These informal clips give a sense of Shtern’s rich, singing tone and extraordinary technique. Notice his masterful, seamless bow control. This video, from Shtern’s 75th birthday, highlights his roots in Klezmer fiddling. Here is a profile featuring more background on Abram Shtern’s life.