performed by Gidon Kremer and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, with cadenzas by Alfred Schnittke
(cover image by Steven Wang)
This is one of only a few violin concertos we’ve discussed on the blog, and arguably the most famous. We saw Mendelssohn ages ago, and Sibelius even longer ago, I think, and in more modern times, concertos from Bach, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Bartok, Glass… but not Tchaikovsky yet, or Dvorak, or Bruch, or Brahms… but finally Beethoven, and writing about this piece is intimidating not only just because it’s Beethoven and it’s so highly regarded, but also because I have come, unexpectedly, to be in just sheer awe of its magnificence, on the level of greatness of something like the composer’s ninth symphony. It’s just… perfection.
The work was written in 1806, a short while after the two romances we discussed earlier in the week. Wikipedia says that those pieces show an influence from “the French school of violin playing” and resemble the slow movements of concertos by people like Viotti. I know nothing of that, so I shan’t say more about it, but Wikipedia does continue to say that “the ‘martial’ opening with the beat of the timpani follows the style of French music at the time.”
The premiere was given on December 23, 1806, first performed by the man for whom it was written, one Franz Clement. It might seem unthinkable now that the work is so highly regarded, but the work was not a success. This could have been due, at least in part, to the composer having finished the solo part so late that Clement had no choice but to sightread portions of it, and I suppose no matter how superb a musician you are, that still means some compromise in the level of artistry you can deliver.
It was not until much later that the work started to get the beginnings of the attention it now has, when the very young and (at least later to be) very famous Joseph Joachim performed it at only 12 years old, with Mendelssohn conducting the London Philharmonic Society, more than a decade after the composer’s death. For whatever reason, this was apparently all it took for the work to be reevaluated, and it certainly recovered quickly, now to be one of the most famous and well respected works in the repertoire. (Despite how German the name may sound, Joachim was actually of Hungarian Jewish heritage, and also the first cousin of the grandmother of Paul Wittgenstein, famous [eventually to become one-armed] pianist. It was thanks to Joachim’s connection to the Schumanns and his discovery of the young and then-unknown Johannes Brahms that he suggested the latter go meet the former.)
The work, in Kremer’s version with the Schnittke cadenzas, has a duration of about 44 minutes. The other version I have listened to repeatedly is Isabelle Faust with the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado, and that one is about 41 minutes. They are all, however, obviously in three movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Rondo- Allegro
The first movement takes up more than half of the playing time of the work, and while the entire piece is, it goes without saying, sumptuously, wonderfully beautiful, it is indeed this first movement that does so much of the work in making this piece what it is.
We begin, as referenced above, with a timpani ever so quietly tapping out what will eventually become the heartbeat for the first movement, if not the entire work. With the beautifully, richly Romantic language in this piece, Beethoven’s immaculate handling of an orchestra with soloist (having written around [but maybe not exactly] four piano concertos and nine of his ten violin sonatas by this time, based on the opus numbers), and the large scope of this first movement, it always gives me the feeling of departing for a grand journey (one of which I’m going on myself in exactly one week). I wouldn’t listen to this piece and say ‘it sounds French’ but that adds a certain additional Romantic element to it. This is the reason for the cover image for this article.
Something as simple as the repeated note from timpani that opens this work is revisited and echoed again and again throughout the first movement, and is a source of unity, like a stitch running through the fabric of the work, and adds some surprising weight and energy to the movement at times. Of course, though, the real focus of the piece is in the violin writing. As we discussed a number of weeks ago, Beethoven was at least a competent, if not talented, violinist, and while I won’t describe the ins and outs of the movement or try to put my finger on exactly what makes it so magnificent, I will say that with its weight and power, it feels much more like one of his symphonies rather than just a stage on which the violinist can dance and showcase themselves. It’s a piece with real purpose, with beautifully artistic motivations, and this first movement bears that out. (If you are familiar with any of the piano concertos, especially, say, the fourth, you’ll know what I mean.)
The second and third movements of our journey are give or take the same length (depending on recording), but still add up to less time than the magnificent first movement. On our itinerary, then, the second movement is a quiet space, a retreat to one’s cabin for some quiet reflection, staring out a porthole, maybe poring over letters if this really is a longer journey, doing some thinking.
The final few bars of the second movement are like the cabin door cracking, getting a few whiffs of the fresh sea air and some sunlight. The violin gives a few stutters of what the finale will bring us before we officially set foot on the deck of the final movement. It is nothing short of rapturously celebratory. It’s buoyant and vivacious, full of smiling melodies and the kind of Beethovenian crispness and perfection you surely already know and love, and probably some of those typical Beethoven musical jokes that are a little bit above my amateur head.
But now for Schnittke. What place does he have in this pristine, two-century old concerto?
As I’ve decided that Alfred Schnittke has been inaugurated into our Editor’s Choice series, I thought I’d give attention to Kremer’s recording with Schnittke’s controversial cadenzas, and I absolutely love them. One reviewer referred to them as being like out-of-body experiences, just a few minutes out of this enormous, beautiful journey that The Master takes us on, where we have these inspiring, even jolting, visions of the future, watching our future selves, vicariously through the soloist, as we hear snippets of references to concertos like those from Shostakovich, Berg and Brahms, and of course the Beethoven. Of course, to Beethoven they would have been what is yet to come in the grand tradition of the violin repertoire, but by Schnittke’s time, they were very contemporary, and they add a certain breadth, depth, musical awareness and scope, and certainly contrast, to this already magnificent, epic violin concerto, perhaps the greatest ever written.
If you’re a purist, go for the Kreisler or Joachim cadenzas, or really most of the others that have been written for this piece, but for something really wild and unique, listen to Kremer and his cadenzas from Schnittke.
What it comes down to, though, is that this concerto can’t be pigeonholed, or colored, as “that kind of” work. I think of Sibelius’s violin concerto as a largely melancholy work, one with a very specific color palette that says, at least to me, one thing, and maybe a very big thing, but it’s a specific experience. The same is true, less positively so, with Tchaikovsky. Mendelssohn, meh. Schoenberg gets me more, and Brahms, but there’s something all-encompassing, something above emotional cue and description in the Beethoven, and with that… I’ll stop.
That’s certainly a tough act to follow, but we’ll see a bit more Beethoven on the weekend and then move onto another Editor’s Choice composer we’ll be seeing more of this year, so stay tuned. Thank you so much for reading.