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8.501058 - GREAT VIOLIN CONCERTOS (10-CD Box Set)
GREAT VIOLIN CONCERTOS
The word concerto has been variously derived, generally suggesting ‘striving together’, whether collaboratively, or, as often seems the case, in competition. In the later seventeenth century and the first half, at least, of the eighteenth, the principal concerto form had been that of the concerto grosso, in which a small group of players, the so-called concertino, is contrasted with the whole body of the orchestra, the ripieno. The most widely used instrumentation was for strings, in four or five parts, with a chordal instrument, the harpsichord or organ, filling out the harmonies. This form reached a high level of popularity through the work of the Italian composer Corelli, and his many imitators, including Handel, but by the middle of the eighteenth century had become obsolete, to undergo partial revival in the twentieth century. The solo concerto, and the solo violin concerto in particular, owed a great deal to Antonio Vivaldi in Venice, a musician who combined prolific facility as a composer with technical virtuosity as a violinist. His solo concertos were much admired and imitated. These were normally in three movements, fast—slow—fast, with the second movement usually a lightly accompanied aria for the solo instrument, and first and third movements in which, as in the concerto grosso, the soloist, lightly accompanied, presents episodes between a recurrent passage for the whole orchestra, the ritornello. In Cöthen, where he served as Court Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach, inspired by the example of Italy and Vivaldi, also wrote solo concertos for various instruments, works some of which he later transcribed for harpsichord or harpsichords and orchestra.
The violin concerto, like the piano concerto, owed much of its development to the technical achievements of performers, and, as time went on, to the ability of violin-makers and the higher status gradually accorded to the instrument. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the work of violin-makers such as Antonio Stradivari in Cremona and the construction of instruments that have retained their importance and increased their price over the years.
The classical concerto, to which Mozart made a superlative contribution, retained at first elements of the Baroque ritornello, but made increasing use also of the tripartite sonata-allegro form that came to prevail at least in first movements of sonatas, symphonies and other works. As a boy Mozart had played the violin as well as the keyboard and in Salzburg in 1773 and in 1775, at a depressing point in his career, he turned his attention to the violin concerto with five concertos that soon made a place for themselves in Salzburg repertoire, professional and amateur. The concertos find room for dance passages, particularly as episodes in final rondos.
Haydn, less of a performer than Mozart, duly wrote a handful of violin concertos, to be played by musicians of his orchestra in Eisenstadt and Eszterháza. In Vienna his recalcitrant pupil Beethoven made the most powerful contribution to the genre with a violin concerto that expanded the classical form, as he had the symphony. At home as a boy in Bonn he had played the violin and viola, although the keyboard remained his principal instrument as a performer. In Vienna from 1792 he took violin lessons but these were not continued. In his concerto he shows familiarity with new French techniques of violin playing, but the general form of the work is essentially that of the classical concerto, with an orchestral exposition, a soloist’s exposition, development recapitulation and cadenza in the first movement, a cantilena, a singing theme in the slow movement, and, introduced immediately by the soloist, a final rondo.
The demon violinist Paganini had a marked influence on the solo concerto, as the nineteenth century proceeded, his phenomenal technical ability suggesting to Liszt similar feats on the piano, and to other violinists a kind of virtuosity that would at one time have seemed neither possible nor desirable. The effect of his playing is heard in the work of the violinist-composers Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski, among many others, and in all who came after him, the technical demands that he had met now becoming an essential achievement for solo violinists. Joachim, distinguished as a virtuoso, teacher and composer, collaborated with his friend Brahms in the latter’s violin concerto and double concerto for violin and cello, works that extended the musical scope of the form, and in Bohemia Dvořák, an orchestral viola player, dedicated his violin concerto to Joachim. The age is one in which great players provide inspiration to composers for great concertos.
In Russia it seemed, at one time, that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, rejected by the great player and teacher Leopold Auer as ‘unviolinistic’, would never find a place in solo repertoire, although, rescued by the violinist Brodsky, it is now among the most popular such works in solo repertoire. Russian traditions were continued by Glazunov and then, in Soviet Russia, by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who brought their own particular musical language to the form, the latter drawing inspiration and assistance from the great Russian virtuoso David Oistrakh. In France Lalo, himself a viola player, had added to the repertoire with his quasi-concerto, the Symphonie espagnole, dedicated to the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate, for whom Saint-Saëns wrote a number of works, including the third of his violin concertos. In England Elgar had drawn on the ability of Fritz Kreisler in his violin concerto and Walton was to write a concerto for Jascha Heifetz. In Scandinavia Sibelius, who had started his career as a violinist, wrote a formidable concerto, entrusted, in performance, to abler hands than his.
The violin concerto has continued to owe a great deal to the tradition of Paganini. Concertos are written for virtuoso performers and continue to make fierce technical demands on any soloist. Musical language may change, but the formidable technical achievements of solo performers remain at the essential heart of the genre, even though, at times, as a visitor to Venice remarked of Vivaldi, the technical virtuosity of performers may arouse wonder rather than pleasure.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the grandson of a baker and son of a man who combined the trades of musician and barber. He was to spend the greater part of his life in his native city, where, from the colour of his hair rather than any political inclination, he was known as “il prete rosso”, the red priest. He had been ordained in 1703, when he was appointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Pietà, one of the schools in Venice for illegitimate or indigent girls. He was able to combine his duties with those of impresario and composer at the theatre of S. Angelo from 1714, and left the Pieta in 1718 to serve briefly as maestro da camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt. By 1723 he was back again at the Pietà with a commission to compose and direct the performance of two concertos a month. Meanwhile his reputation had spread widely abroad both as a virtuoso performer on the violin and as a composer. In 1730 he visited Bohemia and in 1738 led an orchestra in Amsterdam for the centenary of the Schouwberg Theatre. In Italy his operas had been performed in Verona and in Ferrara, as well as in Venice, where they had continued success. In 1740 the records of the Pietà show Vivaldi’s impending departure, and the sale to the institution of twenty concertos. We next hear of him in Vienna, where there is a record of the sale of more compositions to Count Antonio Vinciguerra on 28 June 1741. A month later he was dead, to be given, like Mozart fifty years later, a poor man’s funeral. At the height of his fame he had earned large sums of money, and one must suspect that his later poverty was due not to simple extravagance but to the changes of fashion and to his involvement in the expensive and risky business of opera.
Vivaldi was prolific, composing vast quantities of instrumental and vocal music and nearly fifty operas. Of the 500 concertos he wrote the most popular in his life-time as today were the four known as Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), works that had circulated widely in manuscript before being published in Amsterdam in 1725 when explanatory poems were added to clarify the programme of each concerto. The set was dedicated to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a cousin of Haydn’s first patron. The title page describes Vivaldi himself as the Count’s Maestro in Italia, as Maestro de’ concerti of the Pietà, as well as Maestro di Capella di Camera of Prince Philip, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.
The first concerto, Spring, opens with the cheerful song of the birds that welcomes the season, followed by the gentle murmur of streams fanned by the breeze: there is thunder and lightning, and then the birds resume their song, represented by the solo violin assisted by two other solo violins. The second movement shows the goat-herd asleep, while the viola serves as a watch-dog, barking regularly in each bar against the murmur of the foliage. A pastoral dance brings more activity, to the sound of the bag-pipe, interrupted by a section for the solo violin that seems to breathe the sultry heat of coming summer.
Summer itself is a time of languor—“langue l’uomo, langue ‘l gregge ed arde il Pino”, as the introductory sonnet puts it. The music grows more energetic as the cuckoo sings, then the turtle-dove and the goldfinch. The wind rises and the shepherds are anxious, with some musical justification. In the slow movement their rest is disturbed by thunder and lightning and there are troublesome flies, and in the final movement the fears of thunder are realised as a storm batters the crops.
Autumn opens with the dance and song of the country-people, in work that has much of the artifice of the traditional pastoral convention. This is a celebration of the harvest, with an excess of wine bringing sleep at the end, to pervade the second movement. The third movement brings the hunt at dawn, with the huntsman’s horn, the sound of dogs and guns. An animal takes flight and is pursued and dies in the fatigue of the chase.
The last of the seasons, Winter, brings cold winds, the stamping of feet and chattering teeth. The slow movement shelters by the warmth of the fireside, while the rain falls outside, and the last movement of this eventful history shows people walking carefully on ice, slipping and falling and running in case the ice breaks. The winds are at war, but there is sport to be had.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach belonged to a dynasty of musicians. In following inevitable family tradition, he excelled his forebears and contemporaries, although he did not always receive in his own lifetime the respect he deserved. He spent his earlier career principally as an organist, latterly at the court of one of the two ruling Grand Dukes of Weimar. In 1717 he moved to Cöthen as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold and in 1723 made his final move to Leipzig, where he was employed as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas, with responsibility for music in the five principal city churches. In Leipzig he also eventually took charge of the University Collegium musicum and occupied himself with the collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions. Despite widespread neglect for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers. Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis numbers, abbreviated to BWV, are generally accepted for convenience of reference.
There are three violin concertos that survive in their original form, the Concerto in A minor, the Concerto in E major and the Double Concerto in D minor, scored for strings and basso continuo. They were all written during Bach’s period of employment as Kapellmeister at Cöthen, where the young prince Leopold, a keen amateur, showed a great interest in music. The three concertos also exist in transcriptions for harpsichord made by the composer in Leipzig, with other concertos that survive only in such transcription.
The Concerto in A minor opens with a characteristic figure, which forms a repeated element in the movement. There is a fine-spun melody over a repeated bass figure in the slow movement and a final gigue movement which includes brief moments of technical display by the soloist.
The rather more complex Concerto in E major opens with a movement in which the first figure assumes considerable importance in what is to all intents and purposes a da capo aria. There is a slow movement of sustained beauty over a repeated bass figure, and a lively final rondo.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
The youngest child and only surviving son of Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus was born in Salzburg in 1756. He showed early precocity both as a keyboard player and violinist, and soon turned his hand to composition. His obvious gifts were developed, along with those of his elder sister, under his father’s tutelage, and the family, through the indulgence of their then patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, was able to travel abroad—specifically between 1763 and 1766, to Paris and to London. A series of other journeys followed, with important operatic commissions in Italy between 1771 and 1773. The following period proved disappointing to both father and son as the young Mozart was irked by the lack of opportunity and lack of appreciation of his gifts in Salzburg. Mozart spent the last ten years of his life in precarious independence in Vienna. Initial success with German and then Italian opera and series of subscription concerts were followed by financial difficulties. In 1791 things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, despite the lack of interest in his work shown by the successor to the Emperor Joseph II , who had died in 1790. In late November, however, Mozart became seriously ill and died in the small hours of 5 December.
Mozart’s compositions were catalogued in the nineteenth century by Köchel, and they are now generally distinguished by the K numbering from this catalogue. Mozart wrote a series of five concertos for solo violin, one in 1773 and four in 1775, at a time when he was concertmaster of the court orchestra in Salzburg. Of the last four, K 216 in G major, K 218 in D major and K 219 in A major are the best known, together with the splendid Sinfonia concertante of 1779 for solo violin and solo viola.
The Violin Concerto No4 in D major, K 218, is scored for pairs of oboes and horns with strings. The first movement, a bold Allegro, is introduced by a declaration of the principal theme, later to be taken up by the soloist. There is a lyrical slow movement and a final Rondeau—Mozart uses the French spelling of the word—in which two disparate thematic elements are contrasted, the first an elegant Andante grazioso and the second a rapider Allegro, forming a movement teeming with prodigal melodic invention, including an unexpected dance in G major, a section of it allowing the violinist to provide a drone bass for the solo theme.
The Concerto No 5 in A Major, K 219, opens, again, with the customary orchestral exposition, followed unexpectedly by an Adagio entry for the soloist, the first two notes poised perilously over an abyss of orchestral silence, before the murmur of the moving orchestral accompaniment is heard. This is a prelude to the soloist’s own version of the Allegro, and subsequent development and recapitulation. The slow movement allows the solo violin to repeat and complete the opening theme, while the middle section offers a contrast of theme and key. This is followed by a final movement in the speed, at least of a Minuet and in the form of a rondo, one of its contrasting episodes an example of what passed for “Turkish” music in Austria in the late eighteenth century, a fashionable piece of exoticism.
The Concerto No 3 in G major, K 216, is also a popular concerto. The opening Allegro offers an orchestral exposition in which the principal themes are declared. The soloist repeats the principal theme and by means of new material leads to the second subject, both duly developed and re-established in the final section of the movement. The Adagio is an assured example of Mozart’s handling of the solo violin cantilena, a finely sustained violin melody, to which the orchestra provides a subtle foil. This D Major slow movement is succeeded by a final rondo with a profusion of varied ideas in its contrasting episodes, which include a courtly dance and a less urbane folk-dance before the final re-appearance of the principal theme.
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Louis Spohr was born in Brunswick in 1784, the son of a doctor. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Seesen, where Spohr had his first music lessons, with the encouragement of his parents, both keen amateurs. His early promise recognised, he returned to Brunswick, where he studied the violin and general music theory, embarking on an unsuccessful concert tour to Hamburg in 1799. In the same year he was appointed chamber musician to the Duke of Brunswick, on whose generous patronage he was to continue to depend in the following years. In 1802 Spohr became a pupil of the Mannheim violinist Franz Eck, a musician whose father, a horn-player, had worked with Mozart. Eck toured Germany with his young pupil and went with him to Russia, where Eck was to remain as court violinist until madness led to his return to his brother in Nancy. Spohr mentions in his memoirs that the Eck brothers had both been obliged to leave Munich after amatory complications. The following year Spohr was again in Brunswick, influenced strongly by the performance of Viotti’s favourite pupil, the French violinist Pierre Rode, whom he was to imitate in his own playing. In succeeding years Spohr travelled as a virtuoso, giving concerts with his wife, the harpist Dorette Scheidler, whom he had married in 1806, and developing his abilities as a composer and as a conductor. He spent from 1805 until 1812 as Konzertmeister in Gotha, directed music at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813 to 1815, and the opera at Frankfurt-am-Main from 1817 until 1819, resigning this last position after disagreement with the management over artistic policy. In 1821 Spohr was in Dresden. A year later, though the good offices of Weber, he signed a contract as Kapellmeister at Kassel. Spohr was employed by the new Prince-Elector Wilhelm II and later in his long career in Westphalia by the Elector’s co-regent and successor Wilhelm II , and succeeded in raising the Kassel opera to a high level of distinction, before his retirement in 1857, staging performances of his own very successful operas and Wagner’s music-dramas, and conducting a wide repertoire that included the revived works of JS Bach, as well as undertaking concert tours abroad.
During his career Spohr occupied a position of the highest esteem, honoured for his achievements as a violinist, as a composer and as conductor. The first of those rôles was strengthened by the publication in 1831 of his violin method, while his distinguished work as a conductor had brought the early novelty of the use of a baton, something that had caused initial alarm and apprehension among orchestral players accustomed only to occasional direction from the Konzertmeister’s violin bow, a less damaging weapon, or from the keyboard. Spohr’s compositions include fifteen violin concertos, these last serving as a vehicle for his own synthesis of French style with the legacy of his beloved Mozart, a composer he had idolised since his early lessons with Eck.
The eighth of Spohr’s violin concertos, written in 1816, was described by the composer as In Form einer Gesangszene (In the form of a vocal scena), and is the best known of his violin concertos, retaining an occasional place, at least, in repertoire. The work adapts the form of an operatic work, in the Italian taste, to the form of the violin concerto in a work of great originality. The orchestral exposition leads to a violin solo in the form of an operatic recitative. An Adagio follows, in the form of an operatic da capo aria with an elaborate central section, before the first theme returns. There is an Andante transitional section, replete with double stopping and leading to a virtuosic final Allegro.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Born in Bonn in 1770, the eldest son of a singer in the Kapelle of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s Kapellmeister, Beethoven moved in 1792 to Vienna. There he had some lessons from Haydn and others, quickly establishing himself as a remarkable keyboard player and original composer. By 1815 increasing deafness had made public performance impossible and accentuated existing eccentricities of character, patiently tolerated by a series of rich patrons and his royal pupil the Archduke Rudolph. Beethoven did much to enlarge the possibilities of music and widen the horizons of later generations of composers. To his contemporaries he was sometimes a controversial figure, making heavy demands on listeners by both the length and the complexity of his writing, as he explored new fields of music.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op 61, his only completed concerto for the instrument, was written in 1806 and at first dedicated to Franz Clement, the principal violinist and conductor at the Theater an der Wien, who gave the first performance of the work, adding a further item of variations played with the violin upside down, an unusual testimony to his technical proficiency. A later edition of the concerto carried a dedication to Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning. The concerto was well enough received in Vienna, although some complained of the excessive length of the first movement, one critic writing of the endless repetition of unimportant passages, which he alleged produced a tiring effect. It was not until 1844 that the work became part of the standard repertoire, when it was performed by Brahms’s friend Joachim in London, with the orchestra conducted by Mendelssohn. Since then it has become a favourite with audiences and players, its position unassailable.
Beethoven, with more than usual assistance from a copyist, transcribed the Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra, adding cadenzas, the whole undertaken in response to a commission from the pianist and composer Clementi in London. Although Beethoven’s piano cadenzas have been transcribed for violin, it is usual for soloists to prefer cadenzas from other sources better suited to a string instrument. The first movement of the concerto opens with five ominous drum-beats, in a long exposition, goes on to introduce the principal material of the movement, leading to a treacherously exposed opening octave arpeggio for the soloist. The movement, in all its beauty and variety, continues in broadly classical form. The Larghetto allows the violinist an accompanying rôle, before he finally comes into his own with a fine, singing melody, later to be embellished, before the weighty chords that introduce the final Rondo. Here the soloist introduces the first and principal melody, playing on the lowest string of the violin. An episode of peasant simplicity follows, and the movement continues in the prescribed form, the first theme re-appearing between contrasting sections. As the concerto seems about to end in a whisper, the composer re-asserts himself with two forceful final chords.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
CD 4 Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the distinguished Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker (the additional surname Bartholdy was added to the family name when his parents converted to Christianity). The family moved to Berlin, where Mendelssohn was brought up and able to associate with a cultured circle of family friends. He was associated with the revival of public interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in the early 1830s travelled abroad for his education, spending time in Italy and also visiting England, Wales and Scotland. He was later conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig (where he also established a conservatory), his stay there interrupted briefly by a return to Berlin. He died in Leipzig in 1847. Prolific and precocious, Mendelssohn had many gifts, musically as composer, conductor and pianist. His style of composition combined something of the economy of means of the Classical period with the Romanticism of a later age.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, in the words of the great violinist Joachim the dearest of all German violin concertos, the heart’s jewel, was written for Ferdinand David, leader of the Leipzig Orchestra, during the late summer of 1844. Its composition discharged a debt of gratitude to the violinist and expressed, too, something of the relief the composer felt at the end of a period that had involved him in the troublesome musical politics of Berlin. Leipzig was home.
The concerto, the second Mendelssohn had written for the instrument, opens, after two brief bars of orchestral accompaniment, with the entry of the soloist playing the principal theme, which is only then taken up by the full orchestra. There are other structural innovations in the movement, with the placing of the cadenza at the end of the central development section, instead of the end of the movement, and with the use of a sustained bassoon note to link the first movement to the second. The deftly scored slow movement, of masterly economy in means, leads to a brief transitional section, followed by a spirited last movement that offers a fine example of that lightness of touch that Mendelssohn had shown time and again, not least in his famous Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Max Bruch (1838–1920)
Bruch was born in Cologne in 1838. He was himself to enjoy a reputation as both conductor and composer, and was for a time conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, before taking up a similar position in Breslau. From 1891 until his retirement in 1910 he was entrusted with the composition master-class at the Berlin Musikhochschule, an appointment of considerable prestige.
Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor continues to enjoy wide popularity, while much of his music remains unknown to modern audiences. The famous Violin Concerto avoids traditional form, its first movement a Prelude that opens with a quasi-improvisatory passage for the soloist. There is a second, contrasting theme in B flat major, and some development of this material, before the second, slow movement, which follows without a break. Here the violin opens with a melody of great emotional intensity, in the key of E flat, providing the main source of thematic material for the movement. A brief linking passage leads us safely to the finale in the key of G major and the entry of the solo violin in a mood that must remind us of the last movement of the concerto by Brahms. This opening forms the principal theme of the movement, although further opportunities are provided for the soloist, with rapid passage-work as well as a typically forceful romantic theme. Bruch showed his concerto to Brahms and played it through to him, with a great deal of enthusiasm and sweat. The older composer, not known for his tact, stood up when the performance was over and walking over to the piano took a sheet of the score, feeling it between fingers and thumb and remarking “Where do you buy your music paper? First rate!”
Henri Vieuxtemps (1820–1881)
The son of a weaver, amateur violinist and violin-maker, Henri Vieuxtemps was born in the Belgian town of Verviers in 1820 and had his first violin lessons at the age of four from his father, followed by study in his native town with a locally respected teacher. At the age of six he appeared as soloist in a concerto by Rode and after further success at home he embarked with his father and teacher on a concert tour of the Low Countries. A successful appearance in Brussels led the violinist Charles de Bériot to offer lessons there and the boy later accompanied his new teacher to Paris, making his first concert appearance there in 1829. Vieuxtemps undoubtedly became one of the greatest violinists of his time, combining superb technical command with deeper musical understanding. He may be seen as representative of the Franco-Belgian school of players, the successor of de Bériot, while those who were taught by him or fell under his direct influence include his pupil Eugène Ysaÿe, Jenő Hubay and Leopold Auer.
The fifth of Vieuxtemps’ completed violin concertos, the Concerto in A minor, Op 37, was written in 1858 and 1859 for Hubert Léonard at the Brussels Conservatoire, who wanted the work as a competition piece. The three movements are joined together to make what is virtually a single extended movement. The first movement starts with an orchestral exposition, introducing three contrasting themes, before the dramatic entry of the soloist, who proceeds to a lyrical theme. A second theme for the soloist, in C major, offers a further lyrical element, which the soloist accompanies, during its repetition by the orchestra. The extended development brings further opportunities for virtuosity, before the cadenza, of which Vieuxtemps offers two versions. The second of these, played here, makes contrapuntal use of elements already heard, in an inventive display. There is a brief Moderato link to the lyrical Adagio, with its moving A minor theme. A modulation to A major leads to a C major melody from Grétry’s opera Lucile, an allusion that earned the work its nickname, ‘Grétry’. The concerto ends with a short A minor Allegro con fuoco.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. After a period of hard work, teaching and playing in dockside taverns, he had his first significant success in a tour with the Hungarian violinist Reményi in 1853. Friendship with the violinist Joachim led to an unproductive visit to Liszt in Weimar and to a more fruitful meeting with Schumann, now established in Düsseldorf as director of music. It was Schumann who detected in the young musician a successor to Beethoven. Brahms was to continue his relationship with Clara Schumann after her husband’s breakdown and subsequent death in 1856. It was not until 1864 that Brahms settled finally in Vienna, having failed to realise his first ambition for recognition in his native Hamburg. In Vienna he became an established figure, known for his tactlessness and occasional rudeness, but proclaimed by his friends the champion of pure music against the eccentricities of Liszt and Wagner, a rôle which his four great symphonies did much to reinforce. He died of cancer in April 1897, at the age of 64.
Brahms completed his Violin Concerto in 1878 and dedicated it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The relationship with the violinist was later to suffer through the composer’s lack of tact, when he tried to intervene in a dispute between Joachim and his wife, the singer Amalie Joachim, who brought evidence of her husband’s faults of character in a letter written to her by Brahms. The breach was in part repaired by the later composition of the Double Concerto for violin and cello in 1887, a peace offering.
Following his usual custom, Brahms worked on the Violin Concerto during his summer holiday at Poertschach, where in 1877 he had started his Second Symphony. The first performance of the work was given in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879, with Joachim as the soloist. The concerto combines two complementary aspects of the composer, that of the artist concerned with the great and serious, as a contemporary critic put it, and that of the lyrical composer of songs. As always Brahms was critical of his own work, and the concerto, long promised, had been the subject of his usual doubts and hesitations. Originally four movements had been planned, but in the end the two middle movements were replaced by the present Adagio, music that Brahms described as feeble but that pleased Joachim as much as it has always pleased audiences.
The first movement opens with an orchestral exposition in which the first subject is incompletely presented in the initial bars. Its full appearance is entrusted to the soloist, after the orchestra has offered a second subject and other themes that will later seem eminently well suited to the solo violin. The actual entry of the soloist and the approach to it must remind us of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with its rather longer orchestral exposition that had so taxed the patience of Viennese audiences seventy years earlier. The cadenza Brahms left to Joachim, whose advice on this and other matters he was willing to heed. In this recording, Takako Nishizaki plays the cadenza by Fritz Kreisler. The slow movement is splendidly lyrical, based on a melody of great beauty, which is expanded and developed by the soloist and the orchestra, dying away before the vigorous opening of the Hungarian-style finale. This, in rondo form, is of great variety, intervening episodes providing a contrast with the energetic principal theme, leading to a conclusion of mounting excitement.
Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Born in Genoa in 1782, Paganini’s popular reputation rested on his phenomenal technique as a violinist, coupled with a showman’s ability to dominate an audience and to stupefy those who heard him by astonishing feats of virtuosity. His playing served as an inspiration to other performers in the nineteenth century including Chopin and Liszt. The very appearance of Paganini impressed people. His gaunt aquiline features, his suggestion of hunched shoulders, his sombre clothing, gave rise to legends of association with the Devil, the alleged source of his power, an association supported by the frequent appearance by his side on his travels of his secretary, one Harris, thought by some to be a familiar spirit or a Mephistopheles watching over his Faust.
The six surviving violin concertos of Paganini, part of the stock-in-trade of a travelling virtuoso, were published posthumously, the last of them relatively recently. In general they follow the form of the romantic virtuoso concerto as developed by the violinist Viotti and by Spohr, allowing the soloist music of operatic virtuosity, an opportunity for technical and musical display.
Concerto No1 in D major, written, in fact, in E flat major, but generally transposed in performance to D major, was probably written in 1817, at a time when Paganini was enjoying enormous success in his native Italy, while arousing jealousy and suspicion in even measure from rival musicians. The concerto allows the soloist to demonstrate a high degree of technical proficiency, both in the handling of the bow, with its flying staccato, and in the demands made on the left hand, at the same time it shows a very Italian gift for melodic invention.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns enjoyed a long and prolific career as a composer. As a younger man he was a leading supporter of newer tendencies in French music: in old age his opposition to Debussy, whom he outlived by three years, earned him a deserved reputation as an enemy of what was seen as progress. An admirer of Mozart, he was known to some as the French Mendelssohn, and his music always possessed the clarity of form and texture common to these earlier composers, elements that influenced his friend and pupil Gabriel Fauré and, vicariously, Fauré’s own pupil Maurice Ravel. In his personal life Saint-Saëns was not always fortunate. As a boy he was brought up by his mother and his great-aunt, two women to whom he was devoted, the latter his first teacher. His marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year-old, to his mother’s marked disapproval, was predictably disastrous and was brought to an end, after the death of his two young sons through illness and accident. In 1881 Saint-Saëns, on holiday with his wife, simply walked out, never to return. For the remaining forty years of his life, and particularly after the death of his mother in 1888, he lavished affection on his dogs and on his pupil Fauré, whom he had first met as a student at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris in 1861.
Saint-Saëns added very significantly to violin repertoire, with three concertos for the instrument, in addition to a number of shorter works for violin and orchestra. The third of his violin concertos, written in 1880, has much in common with the single-movement Morceau de concert in G major, Op 62, of the same year, to all intents and purposes a concerto first movement in itself. These furnish splendid examples of the composer’s clarity of form and texture, his idiomatic handling of the violin, and at the same time bear witness to a certain conservatism. Dedicated to the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate, who gave the first performance, the violin concerto starts without an orchestral introduction. The strongly marked melody introduced almost at once by the soloist, over tremolo strings and timpani, has an important part to play in the first movement. The second movement is a Barcarolle and is followed by a passage of quasi-recitative for the soloist, before the Finale. The solo violin is prominent throughout the concerto.
Édouard Lalo (1823–1892)
Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole is among the most popular works in the violinist’s repertoire. Lalo’s name may be Spanish but his family had established themselves in northern France in the sixteenth century .The composer was born in Lille in 1823, son of a father who had served in Napoleon’s armies. Early training at Lille Conservatoire in violin and cello was followed, at the age of sixteen, by a brief period of study in Paris with the violinist and conductor Habeneck and private lessons in composition. In Paris, in independence of his father, who disapproved of his son’s choice of career, he earned a living as a violinist and as a teacher, while writing music that did not achieve the success he needed. From the 1850s he was particularly involved in performance as viola-player in the Armingaud Quartet, and later in his own quartet, ensembles that re-introduced to the French public the classical quartet repertoire of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
It was not until the 1870s that Lalo began to make an impression as a composer, with the performance of his Violin Concerto in 1874 by Pablo Sarasate, to whom the Symphonie espagnole of the same year was dedicated. This was followed by other orchestral compositions, including the successful Cello Concerto and a series of works for solo violin and orchestra. Still greater success came at last in 1888 with the production of his opera Le roi d’Ys at the Opéra-Comique, after a series of earlier operatic disappointments. He died in 1892.
Symphonie espagnole is a symphony only in name. The mood of the work is established at the start with the brief orchestral introduction, followed by the entry of the soloist and the characteristic Spanish rhythms of the principal theme. The second scherzando movement, with its contrasting central section, is followed by a characteristically Spanish Intermezzo and a lyrically moving slower movement that grows in intensity with its idiomatically Spanish turns of phrase. The work ends with a final Rondo of bright elegance and charm in which there is ample opportunity for virtuoso display.
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840. He was one of the earlier students of the St Petersburg Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein, completing his studies there to become a member of the teaching staff at the similar institution established in Moscow by Anton Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolay. He was able to withdraw from teaching when a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, offered him financial support; this support continued for much of his life, although, according to the original conditions of the pension, they never met. Tchaikovsky was a man of neurotic diffidence, his self-doubt increased by his homosexuality. It has been suggested by some that an impending scandal caused him to take his own life at a time when he was at the height of his powers as a composer, although others have found this improbable. His music is thoroughly Russian in character, but, although he was influenced by Balakirev and the ideals of the Russian nationalist composers ‘The Five’, he may be seen as belonging rather to the more international school of composition fostered by the Conservatories that Balakirev, leader of ‘The Five’, so much deplored.
It was in March 1878, in the Swiss resort of Clarens that Tchaikovsky set to work on his Violin Concerto. Kotek, the young violinist who had accompanied him, joined him in playing through a great deal of music, including Lalo’s new Symphonie espagnole. Two days after playing Lalo’s work Tchaikovsky started his own concerto, drawing inspiration from what he described as the freshness, lightness and piquant rhythms of the French composer’s music. Two days later the first movement of the concerto was completed and a week later the whole concerto was ready, so that Kotek—Kotik, or Tom-cat, to Tchaikovsky—was able to play it through, much to the general approval of the composer’s brother Modest, who had joined the party. The original slow movement, however, seemed less satisfactory, and the present Canzonetta was substituted. Tchaikovsky would have liked to dedicate the concerto to Kotek, who had been present at its inception, had advised on the lay-out of the violin part and was, in any case, its initial inspiration. Discretion and strategy intervened to offer the work to Auer, the leading violinist in St Petersburg, who was to reject it as un-violinistic, although he took it into his repertoire shortly before the composer’s death. The concerto received its first performance neither from Auer nor Kotek, but from Adolf Brodsky, who played it in Vienna two years after its completion, to the disapproval of the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick, who condemned what he regarded as a ‘trivial Cossack’ element in a concerto that must have seemed to him foreign and barbarous.
Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936)
Born in St Petersburg in 1865, the son of a publisher and bookseller, as a child Glazunov showed considerable ability in music and in 1879 met Balakirev, who encouraged the boy to broaden his general musical education, while taking lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov. By the age of sixteen he had completed the first of his nine symphonies, a work that was performed in 1882 under the direction of Balakirev, and further compositions were welcomed by both factions in Russian musical life, the nationalist and the so-called German. Glazunov continued his association with Rimsky-Korsakov until the latter’s death in 1909. It was in his company that he became a regular member of the circle of musicians under the patronage of Belyayev, perceived by Balakirev as a rival to his own influence. Belyayev introduced Glazunov to Liszt, whose support led to the spread of the young composer’s reputation abroad.
Glazunov wrote his Violin Concerto in A minor in 1904 during the summer months after the death of Belyayev. It was first performed in St Petersburg on 4 March 1905 by Leopold Auer, to whom it was dedicated. Two weeks later Auer’s fourteen-year-old pupil Mischa Elman played the concerto in London and another pupil, May Harrison, has left some account of her own performance of the work in St Petersburg in 1912, with Glazunov conducting, after a rehearsal in which he had gone through the Brahms Double Concerto at uniformly slow speeds, something attributed by some to habitual over-indulgence in alcohol. The concerto includes a slow movement, marked Andante sostenuto, framed by the first movement Moderato. The opening theme is first heard in the lower register of the violin and its very Russian outline is in contrast with the lyrical second subject, marked Tranquillo and in the key of F major. The central Andante sostenuto shifts into the key of D fiat major, its principal theme played first on the G string of the violin. Two plucked chords signal the return of the principal Moderato theme from violas and bassoons, with a fragment of the secondary theme from flute and oboe, before a recapitulation in which the soloist is allowed moments of passionate virtuosity in handling the principal theme. The re-appearance of the second theme leads soon to a cadenza and the end of the movement. The final A major Allegro is dominated by its cheerful Russian principal theme, heralded by the trumpets and taken up at once by the soloist. This provides a framework for contrasting episodes in a concerto that is accepted as a significant addition to romantic violin concerto repertoire.
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Edward Elgar was arguably the leading English composer of his generation and a significant figure among late Romantic European musicians. Born in the West of England in 1857, the son of a piano-tuner and owner of a music shop, he earned his earlier living as an organist, violinist and teacher in his own part of the country. After his marriage in 1889 he found himself able to move to London as a composer, but success only came later, after his return to the West Country, confirmed by the Enigma Variations, first performed in London in 1899. He wrote relatively little after the death of his wife in 1920.
By 1910, the year of the Violin Concerto, his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius had become an established part of English choral repertoire. The Violin Concerto was completed in time for its triumphant first performance at the Queen’s Hall in November 1910. It was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the soloist on this occasion, and inscribed, cryptically, with the words Aqui esta encerrada el alma de…, the inscription found on a poet’s tomb in the picaresque novel Gil Blas by Lesage. This is generally supposed to be a reference to Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar’s acknowledged inspiration for the work, his Windflower, an affectionate nick-name that distinguished her from his wife Alice. Although Elgar himself was a violinist, he relied for technical assistance on WH Reed, the young leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, who played through the work with the composer at the first private hearing in Gloucester, before Kreisler, a soloist at the Gloucester Festival, offered his own private performance of the work.
The concerto opens with a highly characteristic first theme, in its orchestral exposition, moving forward to themes identified with the Windflower. The soloist enters, introducing a second exposition, a reworking of the first material, developed in the central section of the movement, which relies at first on the first subject, before turning to the Windflower second subject, now played maestoso. The first subject opening figure is played in descending sequence by the soloist in introducing the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement. The slow movement, the part of the concerto that Elgar wrote first, moves from the key of B minor to B flat major. Here the solo violin adds its own element to the ingenuous first theme announced by the orchestra, which also proposes the modal second theme, shifting in key to a mysterious D flat major in music of wonderful lyricism. The final Allegro molto opens with an introduction of ominous excitement, leading, after ornamental brilliance from the soloist, to the announcement of the first theme, echoed and developed by the soloist. The gently romantic second subject, marked cantabile e vibrato, is introduced by the soloist and this thematic material, and that of the introduction to the movement, re-appear, as the music is developed, leading to an initially accompanied cadenza, into which the orchestra softly intrudes in conclusion. The final section of the movement echoes the introduction, culminating in a version of the principal theme, in violin triple stopping and marked nobilmente, a favourite direction in Elgar’s music, bringing to an affirmative end a major addition to the violin repertoire, a concerto that goes far beyond any merely insular tradition.
Henryk Wieniawski (1835–1880)
Born in Lublin in 1835, Henryk Wieniawski was the son of the pianist Regina Wieniawski and nephew of the pianist Edouard Wolff. His gifts as a violinist were early apparent and encouraged by his teachers, including Stanislaw Servaczyński, who had taught Joachim in Budapest. In 1843 Wieniawski entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he went on to study with Massart until 1848, latterly as a private pupil. His successful concert in Paris that year, with his pianist brother, was followed by a series of concerts in St Petersburg and the praise of Vieuxtemps, then soloist to the Tsar. Wieniawski returned once more to Paris, where he studied further at the Conservatoire, in order to improve his skills in composition. From 1851 to 1853 he was again in Russia with his brother. Thereafter he continued a career as a travelling virtuoso with successful concerts in Leipzig, Paris and London. At Anton Rubinstein’s invitation he returned to Russia in 1860, spending twelve years in a variety of activities, serving as solo violinist to the Tsar, leader of the opera orchestra and professor of violin at the Conservatory established by Rubinstein. His Violin Concerto No 2 was written in 1862 and first performed under Anton Rubinstein in St Petersburg that year. In 1872 Wieniawski resumed his peripatetic career and in 1875 succeeded Vieuxtemps as professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory. In 1875 at a concert in Berlin he was obliged to break off during a performance of his Second Concerto and Joachim, a member of the audience, hastily rose to take his place, playing Bach’s Chaconne on Wieniawski’s instrument. Wieniawski continued his concert tour, with occasional breaks, as his health deteriorated. He died in 1880 at the Moscow house of Tchaikovsky’s patron Nadezhda von Meck. As a violinist he had combined the violin traditions of Poland and of Paris, and had had a marked effect on Russian playing, his influence continued by his successor Leopold Auer.
Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor is a work of considerable musical substance, not given purely to technical display, although virtuoso demands remain considerable. After the orchestral introduction the solo violin enters espressivo ma sotto voce, leading, in a passage marked appassionato, to a simpler second subject. The movement, which finds room for technical elaboration of the material, ends with an extended orchestral passage. The slow movement Romance in B flat major is dominated by its principal theme. Its relative calm is interrupted by the final Allegro con fuoco, its introduction followed by a cadenza, before the Allegro moderato a la Zingara, a gypsy mood that involves much off-the-string bowing, lyrical episodes and a dramatic ending. The concerto was dedicated to Pablo Sarasate.
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture of his family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and acquire his first interest in the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia, after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden. The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, and his first ambition was to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this direction was outweighed by his gifts as a composer. In Finland, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic student pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite. Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The successful Symphony No 1 of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. Symphony No 2 in 1902 won an unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed by the Violin Concerto, Symphonies Nos 3 and 4. Symphony No 5 was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four works of any substance, Symphony No 6 in 1923 and, Symphony No 7 in 1924, incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An eighth symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
Sibelius completed the first version of his Violin Concerto in 1903 and it was first performed in Helsinki the following year by Victor Nováček with indifferent results. The concerto was revised and successfully performed in Berlin in 1905 by Karl Halir, under the direction of Richard Strauss. The choice of soloist, however, offended the violinist Willy Burmester, who had originally been promised the work. The earlier version of the concerto was technically ambitious, and as a violinist Sibelius had needed no help with the layout of the solo part, although this presented technical difficulties that were beyond his own command. The later version made necessary revisions in the solo part and it is in this definitive form that the work has become a standard part of the solo repertoire. The work was dedicated to the young Hungarian virtuoso Ferenc Vecsey, who had given a later performance of the concerto in Berlin in the presence of the composer.
The concerto opens with no lengthy orchestral introduction, the soloist making an almost immediate appearance, accompanied by a Scandinavian mist of muted strings. Although the movement is in the traditional tripartite form, the central development section is replaced by a cadenza-like passage for the violinist. The lyrical slow movement brings a deeply romantic melody, with the soloist proceeding to weave his own fantasies above the orchestra. There follows a finale which the composer once described as a danse macabre, providing an opportunity for virtuoso display in a work in which the solo part is generally entwined with the orchestral texture.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Dvořák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. Dvořák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvořák’s parallel work as a composer. It was through the encouragement of Brahms that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. 1878 saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op 45, and from this time onwards Dvořák’s fame grew and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony “From the New World”. By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
Dvořák wrote the first version of his Violin Concerto in the summer of 1879 and at the end of November sent the completed work to the violinist Joseph Joachim, to whom the concerto is dedicated. The following April he visited Joachim in Berlin and various suggestions were made, leading to a thorough revision of the work. Joachim still had further revisions to suggest and made his own adjustments to the solo part, while the orchestral part had seemed sometimes too heavy, as demonstrated by a run-through in Berlin in 1872 with the Musikhochschule Orchestra, and was consequently revised. The concerto was available in its final form by the end of the year and was first performed in October 1873 in Prague by the Czech violinist František Ondñček.
The first movement is briefly introduced by the orchestra, leading to the solo statement of the principal theme, which dominates the movement, re-appearing almost at once in the subdominant. The soloist later announces a short secondary theme in C major, but it is the mood and rhythm of the main theme that prevails. The second movement, marked Adagio, ma non troppo, is linked to the first and Dvořák resisted suggestions from his publisher’s representative to make any change, since he considered the first movement too short to stand alone. In F major, the movement allows the soloist to announce the moving theme that is the basis of what follows, in music that must recall Brahms in its scoring and mood. The last movement, a Czech dumka in all but name, provides a wealth of thematic invention in contrasting episodes, marked by the recurrent principal theme, with its distinctive cross-rhythms.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Dmitry Shostakovich belongs to the generation of Russian composers trained principally after the Communist Revolution of 1917. He graduated from the Petrograd Conservatory as a pianist and composer, his First Symphony winning immediate favour. His subsequent career in Russia varied with the political climate. The initial success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Leskov, and later revised as Katerina Ismailova, was followed by official condemnation, emanating apparently from Stalin himself. The composer’s Fifth Symphony, in 1937, brought partial rehabilitation, while the war years offered a propaganda coup in the Leningrad Symphony, performed in the city under German siege. In 1948 he fell foul of the official musical establishment with a Ninth Symphony thought to be frivolous, but enjoyed the relative freedom following the death of Stalin in 1953. Outwardly and inevitably conforming to official policy, posthumous information suggests that Shostakovich remained very critical of Stalinist dictates, particularly with regard to music and the arts. He occupies a significant position in the twentieth century as a symphonist and as a composer of chamber music, writing in a style that is sometimes spare in texture but always accessible, couched as it is in an extension of traditional tonal musical language.
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor was written at a difficult time, in 1947 and 1948, with official condemnation of the composer imminent. The work was dedicated to David Oistrakh. The first performance was given in October 1955, two years after the death of Stalin. Oistrakh had played it through in 1948, and it may be presumed that the composer made various changes in the work between then and the date of its first public performance. The work is in four movements, Nocturne, Scherzo, Passacaglia and Burlesque. The first movement is dominated by the principal theme, introduced briefly by the orchestra, before the entry of the soloist. The Scherzo includes a central passage suggesting a Jewish dance and the imposing Passacaglia, a version of the traditional variation form over a repeated figure, is joined to the final Burlesque by a cadenza.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer unti1 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto. In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
Prokofiev completed his Violin Concerto No 1 in 1917. The work was sketched and later orchestrated at a distance from the turmoil of Petrograd, where Kerensky’s government had been overturned by the Bolsheviks. Prokofiev was at the time travelling along the River Kama, in a landscape of stark beauty, with its dark pine forests. The first performance planned for Petrograd did not take place and the concerto had its first performance in Paris six years later. In the audience was Joseph Szigeti, who took the concerto into his own repertoire and gave the first performance in what was now Leningrad in 1924. The first movement opens meditatively, the soloist entering with a theme marked sognando (dreaming) over a tremolo string background. This is followed by music of greater astringency, leading to an angular second subject and a passage of those insistent motor rhythms that are a continuing feature of Prokofiev’s writing. The Scherzo offers an immediate contrast, with its chromatic theme and use of interpolated plucked notes from the soloist. The bassoon presents an ominous introduction to the third movement, before the lyrical entry of the soloist. The opening theme of the first movement eventually returns to close the concerto with the gentle lyricism of the beginning.
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