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January 23, 2016

Best 20th c. Violin Concertos

The instrumental concerto emerged as an independent form towards the end of the seventeenth century and soon evolved into a genre in which virtuosity was a significant ingredient. The violin was initially the most important solo instrument, although in the second half of the eighteenth century it was superseded by the piano. The nineteenth century was the age of the virtuoso with empty display leading to the debasement of the genre, although in the hands of serious composers the "symphonic concerto" (sometimes almost a symphony with obbligato violin) also flourished. In the twentieth century, the virtuoso concerto lost in importance and the symphonic concerto grew in complexity.

As you will see below (and in my other posts about classical music) I believe that 20th c. musical history is broader than only atonality or the twelve-tone technique. What counts is whether a given work is convincing as a statement in his own language by the composer. So below you'll find Schoenberg and Ligeti brotherly side by side with Barber and Walton... And why not - this is all beautiful music.


1. Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 33 (1911)
Carl Nielsen wrote concertos for flute, clarinet and violin. That last concerto dates from around the time of his Third Symphony and is a bridge to the composer's leaner style and also to the 20th c. concerto in general. It has an unusual shape, being in two movements which both start with extensive slow introductions. While the first movement with its violin cadenza full of pyrotechnics and expansive sonata movement still reminds listeners of the virtuoso concerto of the 19th century, the second and last movement - a calm prelude followed by a rondo scherzando, built on a capricious staccato tune, renounces everything that might dazzle or impress and therefore sounds utterly modern.
Recording listened to: Cho-Liang Lin with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on CBS Records (with Sibelius concerto). 

2. Frederick Delius, Violin Concerto (1916)
Written in 1916, immediately after the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, but only premiered in 1919 due to the delay by the war. The Violin Concerto shares a continuous flow of lyricism and melodic invention unique in 20th-c. orchestral music with Delius' other concertos, the one for cello and the double concerto. It is a rhapsodic work in one movement, a soliloquy for the violin. The whole work springs from several musical cells introduced at the beginning by orchestra and soloist and seems like a wonderful improvisation although it is of course tightly controlled. It is not a bravura piece and even ends pianissimo, which may be the reason for the surprising obscurity of this beautiful music.
Recording listened to: Tasmin Little with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis on Chandos (with cello Concerto and Double Concerto).

3. Karol Szymanowski, Violin Concerto No 1 (1916, premiere 1922)
Again a violin concerto that rejects the 19th c. tradition. The one-movement concerto, which was contemporaneous with Szymanowski's monumental Third Symphony introduces a new musical language full of ecstatic raptures and tension. The euphoric music is based on Noc Majowa ("May Night"), a poem by Tadeusz Miciński: "And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, / burning in amorous conflagration." While the violin sings its lyrical song it is surrounded by a fascinating landscape of ever changing, cascading sound waves. A concerto with a marked Oriental flavor.
Recording listened to: Konstanty Andrzej Kulka with the Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karol Stryja on Naxos (with Second Violin Concerto). 

4. Sergey Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No 1 (1917, premiere 1923)
The First Violin Concerto was written while Prokofiev worked on his Dostoevsky opera, The Gambler, and the Classical Symphony. The premiere of 1917 was overtaken by the October Revolution and was finally given in 1923 in Paris. It is a lyrical work without overtly virtuoso effects, starting with a quietly rapturous opening theme. The second movement is interestingly a sardonic scherzo, with typical Prokofievian motor rhythms and the violin partly playing sul ponticello (near the bridge). The songful finale resumes the mood of the opening movement, finally to return to the dreamy tune from the start of the concerto.
Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi on Chandos (with Second Violin Concerto).

5. Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No 4 Op 36 No 3 "Violin Concerto" (1925)
Hindemith revived the spirit of the Baroque concerto grosso in his set of seven Kammermusiken, using ensembles inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. The fourth Kammermusik is a violin concerto, written for Licco Amar, Hindemith's friend and leader of the Amar Quartett. The accompanying ensemble is heavily weighted towards the wind instruments, especially the brass, plus as set of small drums. While the fast movements are hard-driven, the slow third movement is a "night piece," with an intense mood of troubled meditation. The two finale movements are a march and a piece with a strange, surrealistic moto perpetuo figuration in the solo violin.
Recording listened to: Konstanty Kulka with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly on Decca (complete Kammermusik).

6. Igor Stravinsky, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931)
A masterly example of neoclassicism, not a superficial stylistic copy, but a wholly new creation as the result of an affectionate approach to models from the past - with the spice of some fine parodic distortion added to the new mix. The four movements have Baroque titles as Toccata and Aria, and at the beginning of each movement the violin plays the same motto-like chord. The music is like a colorful collage, refreshingly serene, avoiding all subjective moods and feelings. It is music completely without a "message" or "idea."
Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Berg concerto)

7. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto "To the Memory of an Angel" (1935)
Berg dedicated his violin concerto to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius, who had been suffering from polio and died at the age of eighteen. They were family friends of Berg who felt like a second father to the girl. It is a twelve-tone concerto meant to gain acceptance for that style of composition, but it also includes tonal elements such as a Carinthian folk song and Bach's chorale Est is Genug. The opening pitches of the Bach chorale form the first four notes of the twelve-tone series on which the whole work is based. The first movement describes the girl in happy circumstances, the second one is about her struggle with death and her transfiguration. The work ends with a vision of the "angel." One of the most impressive of all 20th c. concertos.
Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Stravinsky concerto)

8. Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 36 (1936)
Written in 1936 in the United States, where Schoenberg had moved in 1933 to escape the Nazis, at the same time as the String Quartet No. 4. The Expressionistic concerto is in neoclassical form and in the traditional three movements. It opens with an expansive sonata movement with waltz-like central development section, succeeded in turn by a reflective Andante and a march-like finale. Based on a single twelve-tone row, the concerto is entirely dodecaphonic. The basic row of the concerto is very much in the foreground and helps to gain a better understanding of the music. The concerto is very difficult to play, needing a "six-fingered" hand, but anno 2016 there should be no difficulty anymore in understanding this music. Just undergo it.
Recording listened to: Hillary Hahn with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Deutsche Grammophon (with the Sibelius concerto).

9. Bela Bartók, Violin Concerto No 2 (1938)
Composed by Bartók just after the Second Piano Concerto and while he worked on the chamber piece Contrasts. Bartók initially planned to write a single-movement concerto like a set of variations, but at the request of the dedicatee, the violinist Zoltán Székely, he ended up writing a standard three-movement concerto - with the set of six variations on a Magyar folk theme as the second movement and the third movement being a variation on material from the first. The dramatic music may well reflect the difficult life of the composer in Hungary in 1938 when as a democrat he was the target of various attacks by Fascists. Soon afterwards, he emigrated to the United States.
Recording listened to: Kyung Wha Chung with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti on Decca (with violin concerto op. posth.)

10. Samuel Barber, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14 (1939).
One of the most magically lyric and romantic concertos ever written. In Barber's own words: "The first movement (allegro molto moderato) begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement (andante sostenuto) is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin."
Recording listened to: Elmar Oliveira with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin on EMI (with Symphony No 2 by Hanson).

11. Benjamin Britten, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 15 (1939, rev. 1950)
Written four months after Britten sailed for the United States in 1939, and first performed in New York. The concerto combines virtuosic brilliance with elegiac lyricism, reflecting Britten's growing concern with the escalation of hostilities around the world that year. The three movements are linked by a motto-rhythm (timpani, which also open the concerto in Beethoven-style), which pervades the opening movement and is recalled in the wild second-movement scherzo (a motoric scherzo as in Prokofiev's concerto). The last movement is Britten's first essay in the passacaglia form (later also used in his Second String Quartet), a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The variations include sections of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to a chant-like memory. Britten is in the first place regarded as an opera composer, but happily this wonderful concerto is enjoying a notable revival of interest in recent years.
Recording listened to: Mark Lubotsky with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten on London (wit piano concerto).

12. William Walton, Violin Concerto (1939)
An unashamedly romantic, symphonic concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz, who commissioned it in 1936. There is a kaleidoscopic succession of moods in the first movement: from the dreamy opening and rapture, to the central section’s jazz-inspired inflections. The second movement features a sensual Mediterranean ambiance, as well as an unexpectedly jaunty waltz episode. The third movement is even more lyrical and ends with an exquisite cadenza. The previous decade had already seen the emergence of three large-scale masterpieces by Walton - the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Symphony No. 1 - to which the present Violin Concerto can be added as one of those works on which Walton's reputation securely rests.
Recording listened to: Nigel Kennedy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on EMI Records (with Viola Concerto).

13. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Concerto funebre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939)
In this "funeral concerto" the German composer Hartmann, a sincere anti-Fascist, laments the catastrophe he saw coming, while many contemporaries jumped on the bandwagon of the Nazis that was to drive them to their perdition. The four movement concerto is played without a break and starts and ends with a chorale. The second movement is a lament interrupted by march-like episodes, the Allegro unleashes considerable rhythmic and dynamic forces, with hammering quavers. The final chorale has the character of a slow-moving procession, with a songful melody. The chorales are signs of hope against the background of the desperate situation of intellectuals under the Nazi regime. After the Nazis took full power, Hartmann forbade the performance of his music in Germany.  
Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Zimmermann and Egk).

14. Eduard Tubin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1942)
Eduard Tubin was born in Estonia and studied at the Tartu College of Music, where he attended Heino Eller's composition class. When the Soviets invaded his country in September 1944 Tubin fled to Sweden, subsequently living in Stockholm for the rest of his life. Tubin composed 10 symphonies, an orchestral suite and a sinfonietta, 2 operas, a ballet, chamber music and concertos for solo instruments as the present violin concerto. Despite advocacy of the famous Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, and in contrast to other Baltic composers as Pärt, Tubin remains in obscurity - although he was a masterful symphonist. The first Violin Concerto was written during the war years when Tubin still lived in Tartu and shows the influence of the study the composer undertook in the 1930s of Estonian folk music. After an energetic first movement follows an intimate Andante that is like a painful confession. The final movement has something of a tarantella-like chase.
Recording listened to: Mark Lubotschky with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Suite on Estonian dances etc.).

15. Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor Op 99 (1948)
A truly symphonic concerto in four movements on a grand scale, with a musical plan that looks towards the Tenth Symphony. The brooding and mysterious slow movement is set against a manic scherzo containing the composer's monogram "DSCH." The intense third movement is a reflective passacaglia out of which a long solo cadenza emerges which leads into the vigorous, folk-style finale. Originally written for David Oistrakh, this wonderful concerto had to wait more than seven years before it could be performed, due to the anti-artistic climate of the late Stalin years.
Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Second Violin Concerto).

16. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Concerto for Violin and large orchestra (1950)
A musical commentary on the war and atrocities the composer lived through as a young man in Germany. This is especially clear in the second movement, a long Fantasia that contains an echo of the Apocalypse through quotes of the Dies Irae - after Hiroshima, humans now had the power to destroy the whole planet in their hands. The movement juxtaposes broad, expressive gestures, explosive outbursts and moments of the utmost lyrical intensity.
Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Hartmann and Egk).

14. Frank Martin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1951)
Frank Martin's expressive violin concerto has a mysterious, fairytale-like mood, in part inspired by the Swiss composer's fascination with Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a beautiful lyrical work. The opening orchestral tutti instantly establishes a magical atmosphere, "an amalgam of impressionism, jazz, modal harmony, and a touch of twelve-tone technique." This movement, Allegro tranquillo, leads to a brilliant orchestral climax after which the unaccompanied violin plays a soliloquy. The Andante molto moderato is songful, but with much darker tonal colors. At the end the soloist floats serenely aloft. The concluding Presto is an exuberant display of high-tensioned energy, swept on by a hard-driven soloist.
Recording listened to: Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Orchester Symphonique de la Radio Luxembourg conducted by Frank Martin on Jecklin (with piano concerto).

15. Mieczysław Weinberg, Violin Concerto in G Minor Op 67 (1960)
A massive work in which the soloist plays almost non-stop, more like an orchestral work with obbligato violin. The opening Allegro with its rhythmically obsessive theme is in sonata form. The second theme has a refined accompaniment from celesta and harp. The Allegretto is the only movement where the soloist is initially silent. The Adagio has a dreamy melodiousness and the Allegro risoluto has the character of a dance. It ends by quoting from the first movement and then sinks away in pianissimo. A little-known, but fabulous concerto.
Recording listened to: Leonid Kogan with Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin on Olympia (with Fourth Symphony).

16. Alfred Schnittke, Violin Concerto No 3 for violin and chamber orchestra(1978)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) challenged audiences with his music, which ranges in influences from Russian Orthodox church music to uncompromising atonality. The Third Violin Concerto starts with a cadenza by the soloist. In the first and second movements Schnittke only uses the thirteen wind instruments of the chamber orchestra; the strings only start playing in the third movement and then gradually replace the wind instruments. There are different influences at work in the concerto: Russian Orthodox church music in the closing chorale of the first and third movements and German Romanticism in the forest music at the start of the third, music which directly quotes Schubert and Mahler. There is also the atonal idiom of the chromatic intervals that sometimes produce twelve-note themes but never twelve-note rows. The interaction between these musical worlds is not subjected to any structural principle - Schnittke just follows his ear. He has, he says, been long interested in the interplay between tonality and atonality. The three movements of the concerto (slow-fast-slow) are played without a break.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Chamber Orchetra of Europe on Teldec (complete violin concertos).

17. Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1980)
This concerto was dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who in touring with it around the world brought the Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina first to international attention. The title has a double meaning. In the first place the concerto is based on the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering, BWV 1079), via the "Klangfarbenmelodie" orchestration of the six-part ricercar of that work by Anton Webern. The introduction presents the theme almost whole, after which the soloist deconstructs it, taking away note after note from it. At the end of the concerto, the theme is again reconstructed resulting in a complete statement by the violin at the very end. The second meaning of the title is a religious one: a reference to the section of the Mass when the priest offers up bread and wine as a symbol for the sacrifice of Christ during the Crucifixion, the Christian symbolism "death" and "resurrection" which is also mirrored in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer. The final section of the concerto consists of a slow string chorale that resembles a Russian Orthodox hymn.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit on Deutsche Grammophon (with Hommage to T.S. Eliot).

18. Henri Dutilleux, L'Arbre des songes, concerto for violin and orchestra (1985)
This violin concerto was written for Issac Stern and based by Dutilleux on the idea of continuous growth and renewal, symbolized by the "tree of dreams" mentioned in the title. There are four movements linked by three interludes, all played without a break. "All in all the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of 'L'arbre des songes' as the title of the piece." But it is important to realize that Dutilleux never literally restates his themes - there always is a difference defined by the intervening transformations. The transformations themselves are such that it is difficult to hear the initial theme in them - like hearing a set of variations without first having heard the initial statement of the theme. One of Dutilleux's greatest works, on a par with the Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain..." and the string quartet "Ainsi la nuit."
Recording listened to: Isaac Stern with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on CBS (with violin concerto by Maxwell Davies).

19. Philip Glass, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No 1 (1987)
In 1987, Philip Glass turned from electronic music to symphonic music in a more traditional and lyrical style. The first fruit of this new style was the Violin Concerto No 1, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for soloist Paul Zukofsky. It quickly became one of Glass' most popular works, not surprisingly, as it is really vintage Glass, reminding one of such works as the Dance Pieces. It is in conventional three-movement format. Both the first and last movements have a strong dance-like feel. In both a theatrical and personal way, the violin strews it fast arpeggios upon the pulsing background chords, or soars over them with arching, cantabile lines. The success of the concerto inspired Glass to branch out into more orchestral works.
Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Adams).

20. György Ligeti, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1992)
György Ligeti has been called one of the most important avant-garde composers of the latter half of the 20th c. Born in Romania in 1923, he lived in Hungary before emigrating to Austria in 1956, where he became a naturalized citizen. In 1973 he became professor of composition at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater until his retirement in 1989. He died in Vienna in 2006. Ligeti uses both polyrhythm and micropolyphony (a similar technique to polyphony but with the polyphony hidden under a dense and rich stack of pitches). This leads to slowly evolving, static music. Ligeti completed his Violin Concerto in 1993 after four years of work. Like the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto uses the wide range of techniques he had developed up until that point. Among other techniques, it uses "microtonality, rapidly changing textures, comic juxtapositions... Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to Medieval and Renaissance music and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery."
Recording listened to: Saschko Gawriloff with Ensemble InterContemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon (with cello and piano concertos).

21. John Adams, Violin Concerto No 1 (1993)
The violin concerto was commissioned as both a concert work and music for the dance stage, so that the underlying grid of rhythmic equality is never obscured. As John Adams has stated: "Formally, the concerto embraces a long, rhapsodic first movement, a slow, stately chaconne and a driving, extroverted toccata. The solo voice is almost never ending, the orchestra remaining either behind it or below it..." In other words, there is no contest between soloist and orchestra, to which also the title of the second movement refers, "Body through which the dream flows:" "the orchestra as the organized, delicately articulated mass of blood, tissues and bones; the violin as the dream that flows through it."
Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Glass).


[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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