There’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 500 times. Vivaldi’s own performances were undoubtedly infused with a virtuosic freedom and sense of spontaneity that grew out of improvisation and ornamentation. Robbed of these elements, modern performances of Vivaldi can sometimes sound formulaic, like bland elevator music.
But if you want to hear just how exciting and adventurous Vivaldi’s music can be, listen to the edge-of-your-seat period playing of Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. A few weeks ago, Sinkovsky appeared with Belgian baroque ensemble B’Rock (Baroque Orchestra Ghent) at the BBC Proms (Listen to that concert here). Notice the stunning virtuosity in the cadenza of the Violin Concerto in D major, RV 208 ‘Grosso Mogul,’ towards the end of the concert.In moments like this, Sinkovsky perfectly captures the fun-loving abandon of this music.
Below is Dmitry Sinkovsky’s 2012 recording, Concerti per Violino “Per Pisendel” with Il Pomo d’Oro. He talks about the recording here. Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) was a German violinist and composer who led the Court Orchestra of Dresden. Pisendel studied with Vivaldi around 1716 and received the dedication of several of Vivaldi’s scores.
Concerto for Violin, Strings and B.C. in C major RV 177, which opens the recording, explodes with an almost Stravinsky-like punch and some jarring dissonances (0:40). At moments, Sinkovsky’s tone takes on a strikingly vocal quality, interspersed with percussive effects (3:50). The D major concerto which follows (RV 212a) features an extended cadenza, which daringly cycles through a series of keys (beginning at 17:22).
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.
This week a gloomy story came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following a $100,000 audience development study conducted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Taken at face value, the study seems to have uncovered some troubling community perceptions. Despite having one of the world’s greatest orchestras in their backyard, the focus group of non-ticket buyers perceived PSO concerts as “boring” and “stuffy.” At least one commentator is pointing out the study’s limitations and attempting to delve deeper into the data.
Regardless, the idea that orchestras must fundamentally change in order to attract new audiences has become a cliche. In some cases, orchestras have resorted to common sense-defying gimmicks in the name of “innovation.” It’s important to acknowledge that classical music exists on a different plane from mass media culture. A similar focus group might find Shakespeare “boring,” but in the long arc of time, Shakespeare endures as pop culture fades. There will always be an audience for great music.
For audience development and community engagement built on passion and sincerity, look no further than Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. Read Holly’s blog, Neo Classicaland you begin to get a sense of the power of personal connections. Last week, Holly generated excitement with her performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony. The concert seems to have attracted both young and old audience members. In anticipation of the performance, which was attended by the composer, a local bartender developed a special “Higdon cocktail.” It’s not every day that a contemporary piece is met with so much excitement. If Holly Mulcahy’s success can be taken as a model, personal interaction and passion for the community are essential ingredients for twenty-first century audience development.
Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto
Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was written in 2008 and premiered by Hilary Hahn. The first movement is named 1726, the address of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1726 Locust Street). Higdon is on the faculty of Curtis. In the first movement, I hear echoes of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1:49-2:00).
Here is Hilary Hahn’s 2010 recording with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko:
Here is the second movement, Chaconni. The barn-burning third movement, Fly Forwardwas inspired by visions of an Olympic race.
Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been an enthusiastic fan of Apple products for a while. In 2012 he helped develop the Orchestra app, designed as an exciting resource to demystify classical music for a new, tech-savy generation. Now he is featured in Apple’s new “Your Verse” iPad campaign. This website shows how the iPad has become an important tool for Salonen as a composer and performer.
Alex Ross talks about the cultural significance of the campaign:
The very phrase “classical music,” implying an art devoted exclusively to the past, banishes it into limbo. But I imagine that many composers will be pleased at the sight of Salonen’s mass-market breakthrough. Very simply, it says: We exist.
Apple, a company rooted in beautiful design, has created a visually stunning ad which cleverly depicts the birth and development of a musical motive. The music is part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz and premiered in 2009 in Los Angeles. A new recording of the concerto has just been released to coincide with the campaign.
Here is the ad:
You can listen to the complete Violin Concerto here. From the virtuosic opening, it embraces the violin’s ethnic fiddle tradition. Splashes of color blend with occasional rock drum elements. Esa-Pekka Salonen discusses the piece here.
Another interesting Salonen piece I’ve been listening to this week is Nyx (2010). The title refers to the shadowy goddess of the night from Greek mythology. You might hear echoes of Sibelius, Bartók, Mahler and Strauss mixed with the atmospheric sounds of a movie soundtrack.
To develop the material takes time. Is this a beginning, end or middle? The best moments are the ones where I realize that the piece wants to go into a certain direction and perhaps it was a direction I wasn’t even aware of.
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers will join the Richmond Symphony in March to perform a brand new violin concerto by Mason Bates. Born in 1977, Bates, who happens to be a Richmond native, is currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. The Violin Concerto, written for Meyers, was recently premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Learn more about the concerto here and here.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bates’s music is the way he uses the new, electronic sounds of the twenty-first century. Composers have always been inspired by the sounds around them. In the Classical period inspiration came from the sounds of nature…bird songs and brooks. With the industrial revolution the orchestra got louder and more dissonant. In Bates’s music we hear the influence of Techno, Ambient, film scores, John Adams and more, all mixed together in a shimmering sonic stew. This is the musical vocabulary we hear around us every day.
Listen to Mason Bates’s The B-Sides for Orchestra andElectronica,written in 2009. You’ll see Bates, who has developed a second career as a dance club DJ, hunched over a laptop and drum pad in the percussion section. Also notice the use of a broom and the sound it creates. The piece is in five movements. The third movement features samples of NASA radio transmissions from the 1965 Gemini IV space flight. In the final movement, the earthy thud of a Techno beat propels us through a series of almost cinematic musical adventures. Don’t worry about what the piece is “about” on the first listening. Just enjoy the colors, rhythm and flow and see where the music takes you. Here is a live performance with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:
Broom of the System (0:13)
Aerosol Melody (Hanalei) (4:22)
Gemini in the Solar Wind (8:47)
Temescal Noir (14:56)
Warehouse Medicine (17:43)
Now that you’ve heard The B-Sides, here is Mason Bates’s description of the piece. He has some interesting additional thoughts in this interview. Bates talks about the use of electronic sounds in the orchestra here.
Mason Bates joins a long line of composers who have been inspired by electronic sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced the development of electronic music in the twentieth century. Here is his “Studie II” (Elektronische Musik)(1954). Edgar Varese’s Poème électronique(1958) was written for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. American composer George Crumb’s string quartet,Black Angels (1970), uses a variety of new, amplified sounds as well as percussive instrument tapping and bow scraping.
Here is Industry (1992), a piece for solo cello by Michael Gordon (b. 1956). The use of distortion draws upon techniques associated with rock music. Listen to the way the piece gradually develops out of a repetitive opening motive:
Here is what Michael Gordon says about the piece:
[quote]When I wrote Industry in 1992, I was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound. I wrote this piece for Maya Beyser, and it was an incredible process. I would fax her the music and she’d play it to me over the phone. We did this maybe ten times, trying things out. She was constantly teaching me about the cello, and I was making her play things that were really awkward and dark.[/quote]
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What do you think?[/typography]
What experience do you have as you listen to this new music? How do these sounds reflect our modern world? What impact will electronic sounds and pop influences have in the future? In an age of computers and the prospect of increasing artificial intelligence, are electronic sounds somehow less “human” or are they a natural extension of the orchestra, as Mason Bates suggests? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.
What better way to end the year than with a few rare old recordings by the legendary Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974)? Listening to these clips, which range from solo to chamber repertoire, it’s easy to hear why Oistrakh is regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. There is a deep musical sincerity and a powerful sense of humanity in his playing which transcends the ordinary. In the fastest and most demanding technical passages every note sings with the most round, noble tone. Even now, his playing sounds strangely “modern,” uninfected with stylish mannerisms of any historical period. It’s just pure music.
My former teacher, Oleh Krysa, was a student of Oistrakh for seven years. In Book 14 of The Way They Play, Krysa sheds some light on the qualities which set Oistrakh apart as a performer and teacher:
[quote]In the first place, it was about developing musical sincerity, which is probably of utmost importance. He was absolutely intolerant of certain things: it refers primarily to ethics and taste and as a consequence to such aspects as style of playing, choice of repertory, attitude not only to music, but to art in general…Harmony was really striking in him-I mean both his human charm and performance. Oistrakh’s creative work, at least for me, associates with Raphael’s paintings. In his playing there had never been any pointedness of expression or sugary sentimentalism, there had never been a trace of affectation aimed at winning over the public. And his pedagogical activities were also aimed first and foremost at guarding his pupils against such “extremes” and at teaching them to express themselves naturally and sincerely on the instrument.[/quote]
Here is Oistrakh’s 1962 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The warm, rich Philadelphia string sound is on full display in this recording. Oistrakh chose to perform his own edition which is closer to Tchaikovsky’s original text than the edition by Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Auer but withdrew the dedication after Auer’s criticism. The first performance was given by Adolf Brodsky in Vienna in 1881.
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Now let’s hear a 1948 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Oistrakh is joined by pianist Lev Oborin and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.
Written around 1881, the piece is in two large movements. In the second movement a series of contrasting and far reaching variations (including a fugue) spring from a simple melody. Tchaikovsky worried that it was too symphonic, writing to a friend:
[quote]The Trio is finished … now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad. But I am afraid, having written all my life for orchestra, and only taken late in life to chamber music, I may have failed to adapt the instrumental combinations to my musical thoughts. In short, I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. I have tried to avoid this, but I am not sure whether I have been successful.[/quote]
Symphonic or not, the music embodies a sense of raw emotion unique to Tchaikovsky. In the heroic major section between 2:55 and 3:41 it’s hard not to hear a hint of Russian nationalism.
Pezzo elegiaco (Moderato assai – Allegro giusto) 0:00
(A) Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto – (B) Variazione Finale e coda 18:00
Despite its many spirited adventures, the music seems to give up at the end with the same tragic acceptance we hear at the end of the “Pathetique” Symphony. Tchaikovsky builds our anticipation around 44:35 by prolonging the dominant (V chord), but listen to way he avoids a clear, satisfying resolution at 45:08. The remaining music melts away into the gloomy hopelessness of a funeral dirge.
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Here is a 1948 recording of the hauntingly beautiful Sérénademélancolique. Notice all the little Tchaikovsky-isms: the structure of the melody and the way it restlessly develops, the off-kilter rhythmic complexity in the low strings around 3:45, the counter melody scale line (beginning at 6:28) which begins in the low woodwinds and rises dramatically, passing from one instrument to another. Around 8:05 this passage comes again with the violin and woodwinds reversing roles. Listen to the bass pizzicatos providing a rhythmic foundation under the melody. Tchaikovsky is never far from the world of ballet.
Here is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11. The melody is based on a Russian folk song which Tchaikovsky apparently heard whistled by a house painter. Oistrakh performs with Pyotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.
Yehudi Menuhin on David Oistrakh (Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwartz):
[quote]I loved him immediately. Not only was he the gentlest, staunchest, most warm-hearted of men, but he was also simple and ingenuous. He never felt the need to appear other than he was…but presented himself candidly, without second thoughts or self-consciousness or doubts about his reception, a complete human being.[/quote]
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 set the standard for all violin concertos which followed, but you might not have known it at the first performance on December 23, 1806. According to legend Beethoven finished writing the solo part so late that Franz Clements, the violinist who gave the premier, was forced to sight read part of the concerto in the performance. In addition, Clements may have performed one of his own pieces in between movements, playing on one string with the violin held upside down. These antics suggest that the concert experience in Beethoven’s time may have been slightly less reverential than it is today. Many listeners in 1806 may have been overwhelmed by the scale and power of Beethoven’s shocking new music.
Let’s listen to Isaac Stern’s great 1959 recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Pay attention to the way the orchestra and the solo violin interact. This dialogue between tutti (everyone) and solo is what gives a concerto its drama. In this concerto, Beethoven often gives the violin embellishing scale and arpeggio lines which float above the melody in the orchestra. The first movement grows out of five quiet timpani notes. Listen to the way these five notes come back in different forms throughout the movement.
Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
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The first movement is full of surprises. The five notes in the timpani provide a motivic seed, ripe for growth and development. The violins pick up this motive (0:25) but imitate it with a completely “wrong” note. Throughout the movement, Beethoven keeps us off guard, quickly alternating between moods. Just when we get lulled into lyrical complacency, we get a ferocious surprise (listen between 0:57 and 1:41). Beethoven musically provides “two sides of the same coin,” or in this case two sides of the same melody. At 1:40 the melody is sunny, in the major. Notice the way it changes to something slightly darker and more unsettling when it shifts into minor (1:55).
In the mysterious passage following 7:33 the “wrong note” is further developed. Pay attention to the way this moment of quiet musical confusion works itself out. In the tutti section which follows (8:27-10:32), the motive, which started out as five soft timpani notes in the opening, is now transformed into insistent, repeated fortissimo octaves dominated by the trumpets and horns.
Traditionally, the cadenza appears at the end of the first movement of a concerto (19:23). This is the moment when the orchestra drops out and the violinist improvises on the motives of the movement, showing off great technical skill. Later, it became common for performers to use established cadenzas. In this recording Stern plays a cadenza written by the legendary early twentieth century violinist, Fritz Kreisler.
Twentieth century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto which offer a uniquely modern perspective. Interestingly, Schnittke not only uses the motives of the piece, but includes quotes from the Brahms, Shostakovich (First), and Alban Berg violin concertos. Schnittke also incorporates the timpani into the cadenza. Here is Gidon Kremer playing the cadenzas to the First Movement:
Schnittke’s cadenza for the third movement brings back motives from the first movement:
Share your thoughts on this remarkable piece in the thread below. What was your experience listening to the cadenzas by Schnittke? Do they enrich the piece or do they seem jarringly out of place? Do you have a personal favorite recording of the Beethoven Concerto?