Forgotten Romantic violin concertos

Jeremy Nicholas Mon 8th May 2017

When it comes to violin concertos, concert programme content is pretty predictable. Jeremy Nicholas throws down the gauntlet to those responsible with a selection of lesser-known works showcased on disc

Violin Concertos

Four years ago, my late colleague Duncan Druce sought in this space to raise awareness of neglected 19th-century violin concertos (2/13). Despite the continued committed advocacy of some of the most inspiring soloists of our times, few concert programmers have taken up the gauntlet. If you want to hear a violin concerto written in the 19th or early 20th century, you will have a narrow choice of the Beethoven, Mendelssohn (E minor), Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bruch (G minor) or Sibelius. These are the copper-bottomed, bums-on-seats violin concertos.

Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of others, such as the Dvořák, Saint-Saëns No 3, Wieniawski’s Second, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, and sometimes the Glazunov or one by Vieuxtemps (Nos 4 or 5). Even the relatively well-known Goldmark rarely gets an airing (it was last heard at the London Proms in 1911). Yet the Romantic period was the most prolific in music history for new violin concertos. Of course, not all of these deserve a place at the top table, but why are so few of the best of them overlooked and/or rarely played? Is it because of valuable rehearsal time being spent on an unfamiliar score? Is it the unwillingness of conductors to investigate them? Or are there simply too few high-profile violinists interested in championing forgotten works?

Whatever the reason, violinists, like their pianist counterparts, seem forever condemned to play the same small number of concertos again and again – most of them masterpieces, to be sure – without bringing their skills to bear on the guilty pleasures of some of the works discussed here, on the page opposite. Druce’s selection and mine have only one duplication between them (and even that – the Ernst – is through a different recording). My selection could have been many times longer, with omissions such as the concertos by Gade, Svendsen, Arensky, Lyapunov and Holter (his A minor Concerto, with all its flaws, has a gorgeous slow movement). Minor composers sometimes produce major works. So here is a second tranche of overlooked fiddle concertos that music lovers are deprived of hearing on a regular basis in concert.

You can listen to many of these recordings in our Apple Music playlist:

 

Ernst ‘Pathétique’ Violin Concerto

Aaron Rosand vn Luxembourg RO / Louis de Froment

VoxBox (3/73)

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s one-movement concerto, premiered by him in 1846, is his most ambitious work. Virtuosos ignore it today in the belief that its immense difficulties outweigh its aesthetic value (even Ernst found it a challenge). Jascha Heifetz played it in public from the age of 12, and its soaring melodies and finger-breaking bravura can still cast a spell in the right hands – as on the venerable recording by Aaron Rosand, who brings a white-hot intensity to the final pages.

 

Moszkowski Violin Concerto

Charles Treger vn Louisville Orchestra / Jorge Mester

Soundmark Records

This work (early 1880s), with its coherent large-scale structure, skilful orchestration and wealth of melodic invention – contradicts the view that Moszkowski merely wrote salon trifles. Thomas Christian (Koch Schwann, nla) conveys even more intensely than Tasmin Little (Hyperion) the essence of this most lyrical (and thrilling) of fiddle concertos, but despite the less polished orchestral support, Treger’s 1974 premiere recording is the most emotionally engaging of the three.

 

Hubay Violin Concerto No 3

Hagai Shaham vn BBC SSO / Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion (8/03)

Jenő Hubay was a pupil of both Joachim and Vieuxtemps, and he studied composition with Liszt. In this, the most popular of his four concertos, elements of all three mentors are reflected in some measure. It has been recorded several times, but Hagai Shaham, a Hubay ‘grandpupil’, is unrivalled in the penetrating tone and clear affection he lavishes on this music, matched every step of the way by the industrious Brabbins and his versatile Scottish players.

 

Conus Violin Concerto

Jascha Heifetz vn RCA Victor SO / Izler Solomon

RCA (9/55)

Julius Conus (1869-1942) was a pupil of Arensky. His magnum opus is in E minor, the same key as the Mendelssohn, though its conventional three movements are played without pause. Once equalling the Tchaikovsky in popularity, it was premiered in 1898 and championed by Kreisler in the early 1900s, but was only brought to international attention by Heifetz, who made this definitive and unmissable recording in 1952. Ravishing themes, much brilliance, entertaining virtuoso fireworks.

 

Reinecke Violin Concerto No 2

Ingolf Turban vn Bern SO / Johannes Moesus

CPO

Like Moszkowski, Carl Reinecke is best known for his piano music but was also an accomplished violinist. Composed in 1876, his G minor Concerto (perhaps inspired by Bruch’s) was written for and dedicated to his friend Joseph Joachim – who played it just once, in 1876. No other violinist appears to have taken it up until 2004, when Ingolf Turban made a convincing case for a work that celebrates the songful rather than the showman qualities of the violin.

 

Wieniawski Violin Concerto No 1

Michael Rabin vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Boult

Testament (1/58)

Remarkably, Henryk Wieniawski wrote this at the age of 17. It has never rivalled the popularity of his Concerto No 2 in D minor, but with several high-profile champions on disc, No 1 in F sharp minor should be better known to a wider audience. To my mind, Rabin with Boult in 1957 is one of the great recordings of a Romantic violin concerto, the epitome of all one expects from such a work – electrifying, moving, magisterial, exultant.

 

Karłowicz Violin Concerto

Tasmin Little vn BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion

Mieczysław Karłowicz began his career as a solo violinist but soon realised it was not one that suited his temperament. The writing of this earworm concerto, though, shows how well he knew the instrument, placing considerable technical demands on the soloist. Tasmin Little tosses these aside with her customary aplomb, but it’s the central Romanza, providing an oasis of lyrical calm, that really grabs the attention.

 

Bruch Violin Concerto No 2

Itzhak Perlman vn Israel PO / Zubin Mehta

Warner Classics (6/88)

This one is not exactly unrepresented on disc, but no matter how many times it finds its way into the studio, its appearances in the concert hall remain few and far between. The enduring popularity of Bruch’s No 1 in G minor is understandable, but in many ways No 2 in D minor is the more personal (some would even say better) work. Perlman’s 1986 recording captures its yearning introspection to perfection while reminding us that it was written as a virtuoso vehicle for Sarasate.

 

Raff Violin Concerto No 2

Michaela Paetsch Neftel vn Bamberg Symphony / Hans Stadlmair

Tudor

Those who know Joachim Raff’s Piano Concerto will hope that a violin concerto by him might be of the same standard. His Op 206 (1877) falls not far short with a wealth of attractive ideas – a solo part that alternates brilliance (there’s dazzling moto perpetuo material in the first movement) with elegiac introspection (try the Adagio). Paetsch Neftel’s stunning technique, secure intonation and appealing musicality are superbly partnered by Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony.

 

Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No 1

Vineta Sareika vn Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Patrick Davin

Fuga Libera (10/11)

Vieuxtemps’s Concertos Nos 4 and 5 have been much recorded, unlike No 1 in E major, the work that set the seal on the Belgian’s long and brilliant career (like Chopin’s two piano concertos, No 1 was actually written after No 2). Eugène Ysaÿe, his most celebrated pupil, praised it extravagantly. The majestic opening of its lengthy first movement was applauded at its premiere in 1840 before Vieuxtemps had even shouldered his instrument. Latvian Vineta Sareika sails through the monumental difficulties with disarming ease while singing the work’s memorable themes with a rare lyrical grace, ebulliently partnered by Davin and the Liège players.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Gramophone. To find our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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