Top 10 violin concertos

Guest Mon 7th March 2016

An introduction to 10 of the greatest violin concertos with highly recommended recordings

Along with the piano, the violin is the instrument best served with concertos, and what a variety there is! Here’s a violin concerto Top 10 that embraces all the great works at the centre of every violinist’s repertoire ranging from the poise of the Mozart via the red-blooded Romantic works like the Tchaikovsky to the modern language of the Shostakovich and Bartók…

No 1

Mozart Violin Concerto No 3

The English Concert / Andrew Manze (vn)

'First movements combine swagger, elegance and exceptional delicacy of touch, with the semiquaver passagework imaginatively, often playfully, inflected. Hair-shirt authenticists may object to Manze’s fondness for stretching a phrase here, teasing out a cadence there. To me, his rubato always sounds natural and spontaneous. In the slow movements he strikes a fine balance between vernal innocence and sensuous yearning, drawing a wonderfully eloquent cantabile line and warming his pure, silvery tone with a discreet and subtle use of vibrato....' Read the review

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No 2

Beethoven Violin Concerto

Jascha Heifetz (vn) NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini

'The performance itself is one of the most remarkable the gramophone has ever given us. The visionary, high tessitura violin writing is realised by Heifetz with a technical surety which is indistinguishable, in the final analysis, from his sense of the work as one of Beethoven’s most sublime explorations of that world (in Schiller’s phrase) ‘above the stars where He must dwell’. Those who would query the ‘depth’ of Heifetz’s reading miss this point entirely. To adapt Oscar Wilde, it is they who are in the gutter, Heifetz who is looking at the stars...' Read the review

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No 3

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

Ray Chen (vn) Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

'Chen introduces a number of the sort of portamentos that the work’s dedicatee, Ferdinand David, would have used to heighten the expressive effect. He does so discreetly and tastefully, and, I think, makes a strong case for the need to connect notes in this way, if the touching quality of the melody is to be fully brought out. Daniel Harding and his Swedish orchestra give magnificent support and the balance, while sounding entirely natural in its perspective, allows all the important solo lines to make their mark. A combination of fine playing and well-defined recording allows the varied timbres of the woodwind, horns and trumpets to make a particularly vivid impact. One is reminded more forcefully than usual that both concertos are the work of masters of orchestration; Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky delight in finding colourful and evocative settings for the soloist and a variety of ways of animating the musical dialogue. The overall sound is rich and well balanced, and there’s an infectious air of enthusiasm and commitment...' Read the review

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No 4

Brahms Violin Concerto

Julia Fischer (vn) Netherlands PO / Yakov Kreizberg

'Shaham and Kremer offer tauter and brisker accounts of the first movement but Fischer amply justifies her spacious and flexible speeds in the feeling of spontaneity. Her performance never feels self-conscious or too studied and her range of tone and dynamic is extreme, bringing pianissimi of breathtaking delicacy. Thomas Zehetmair with the Northern Sinfonia present the work on a chamber scale – a performance I find exceptionally magnetic – and also take a tauter view. Fischer’s slow movement, too, is expansive while in the finale she lets the tempo relax just enough to allow a persuasive spring in the rhythms, bringing out the Hungarian dance flavour...' Read the review

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No 5

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

James Ehnes (vn) Sydney SO / Vladimir Ashkenazy

'The sound of Ehnes’s violin is especially full and expressive; it’s not the kind of tone that Tchaikovsky would have recognised but it sounds gorgeous and allows him to rise to the concerto’s lyrical high spots with considerable intensity. Even his muted tone in the Canzonetta is exceptionally warm and resonant. He clearly enjoys demonstrating his ability as a virtuoso, making this one of the most exciting accounts of the finale I can remember, with the Sydney Symphony responding to the verve of the solo playing with exhilarating vigour and deftness....' Read the review

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No 6

Bruch Violin Concerto No 1

Kyung-Wha Chung (vn) Concertgebouw Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt

'Chung is lighter and more mercurial than Perlman, often more freely flexible in her approach to Beethoven, as Tennstedt is too, but magnetically keeping an overall command. Perlman may convey magisterial certainty, but the element of vulnerability in Chung's reading adds to the emotional weight, above all in the slow movement, which in its wistful tenderness is among the most beautiful on disc....' Read the review

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No 7

Sibelius Violin Concerto

Leonidas Kavakos (vln) Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

'This disc offers an invaluable insight into the workings of Sibelius's mind, and I have to say that even in its own right, the 1904 version has many incidental beauties to delight us. Kavakos and the Lahti orchestra play splendidly throughout and the familiar concerto which was struggling to get out of the 1903–04 version emerges equally safely in their hands. The BIS team have put us greatly in their debt by making the two versions available for study side by side...' Read the review

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No 8

Berg Violin Concerto

Isabelle Faust (vn) Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

'Few recordings of the Berg have achieved this level of detailed commitment from soloist and orchestra. One that does so is Josef Suk’s, made in 1968 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel Ančerl, and they manage to stay closer to Berg’s metronome markings – some passages in Faust’s recording are on the slow side, though I can’t see that it spoils the performance in any way. And this new account enjoys more mellifluous recorded sound, with far superior definition....' Read the review

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No 9

Bartók Violin Concerto No 2

Barnabás Kelemen (violin) Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra / Zoltán Kocsis

'If you haven’t yet responded to my enthusiasm for Arabella Steinbacher’s Pentatone recording of Bartók’s Second Concerto with the Suisse Romande under Marek Janowski (see review), hold fire. Not that I retract, but this hot recent rival offers a viewpoint you may well prefer. It also provides, as one of the fill-ups, an alternative version of the concerto’s finale, more showy, orchestrally, than the one we know but, for the closing pages, without the soloist (the familiar revision was Zoltán Székely’s idea)...' Read the review

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No 10

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1

Maxim Vengerov (vn) London Symphony Orchestra / Mstislav Rostropovich

'He can fine down his tone to the barest whisper; nor is he afraid to make a scorching, ugly sound. While his sometimes slashing quality of articulation is particularly appropriate to the faster movements, the brooding, silver-grey Nocturne comes off superbly too. Rostropovich has the lower strings dig into the third movement’s passacaglia theme with his usual enthusiasm. There are some expressive swellings in accompanimental detail. Indeed, the orchestral playing is very nearly beyond reproach....' Read the review

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