Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto: a deep-dive into the best recordings
Monday, February 6, 2023
Despite its troubled early reception, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has become a favourite among soloists and audiences. Mark Pullinger considers recordings spanning 70 years and selects his overall top choice
‘The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, shredded,’ wrote the critic Eduard Hanslick about Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, savagely dismissing it as ‘music that stinks’. It was a review that stung Tchaikovsky so deeply that he could recite it by heart.
That premiere had been delayed for over three years. Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee, had found some of the writing ‘quite unviolinistic’ and prevaricated, intending to revise the solo part, until Tchaikovsky eventually withdrew the edition. It was Adolf Brodsky who gave the first performance, with an under-rehearsed Vienna Philharmonic in 1881.
For all the anguish in getting it performed, composition was remarkably trouble-free. Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonina Milyukova in 1877, a headstrong decision to stifle rumours about his homosexuality, led to a failed suicide attempt. Tchaikovsky escaped to Italy and Switzerland. In March 1878 he was recuperating in Clarens, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in accommodation funded by his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. He was visited by the young violinist Yosif Kotek, a former pupil and almost certainly a former lover. In letters, Tchaikovsky referred to him as ‘Kotik’, literally ‘Kitten’. Kotek had brought some recently published scores from Berlin, including Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which captivated the composer. He admired its ‘freshness, lightness, piquant rhythms and admirably harmonised melodies’ and resolved to compose his own violin concerto.
‘Since this morning, I have been gripped by the mysterious fire of inspiration!’ he wrote to von Meck. ‘In such a phase of spiritual life composition completely loses the character of work; it is pure enjoyment.’
Tchaikovsky (right) with violinist and former pupil (and almost certainly former lover) Yosif Kotek, who advised the composer on his Violin Concerto (photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)
Tchaikovsky was not a violinist and Kotek advised him on matters of bowing, fingering and dynamics. Progress was smooth and the concerto was composed in just a month. During that time, Tchaikovsky scrapped the middle movement and replaced it with a tender Canzonetta, written within a single day.
‘With what love he [Kotek] fusses over my concerto! Needless to say that without him I shouldn’t have been able to do anything. He plays it marvellously.’ Yet Tchaikovsky knew that he couldn’t dedicate his concerto to Kotek ‘in order to avoid gossip of various kinds’. He resolved instead to dedicate it to Auer, who had already been the recipient of his Sérénade mélancolique.
Melody and virtuosity
The orchestral introduction hints at the first subject. The solo violin plays two themes: the first is charming and amiable, the second (con molto espressione) starts tenderly, building to a passionate climax and a series of trills. An orchestral tutti signals the development, where the soloist offers a variation on the first subject, then the orchestra makes a surprise return for a second ritornello, because Tchaikovsky places his cadenza before the recapitulation rather than at the end of the movement. This cadenza revisits both main themes before leading to the recapitulation and coda.
The subsequent movements are very Russian in character. The Canzonetta – ‘little song’ – is simple and melodic, its central section luscious and tender. There’s a Cossack feel to the third. In the recitative at the start you can almost hear the fiddler tuning up; there then follow two main themes, the first a lively dance, the second a more earthy utterance with a rustic double-pedal drone, emulating peasant bagpipes. It provides a spirited, joyous ending to a concerto that reflects Tchaikovsky’s happiness at the time, more than Russian melancholy.
Auer wields the knife
We don’t know if Eduard Hanslick ever ate his words and re-evaluated the concerto. Leopold Auer, however, did eventually play it, just months before Tchaikovsky’s death, making a number of cuts and modifying the violin line (particularly in the first movement). Furthermore, he taught this version to his pupils, who included Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz, all of whom recorded the concerto multiple times. Heifetz always played Auer’s version while many violinists employ the cuts Auer made to the finale. Indeed, around half of the versions I listened to contain cuts, including recent discs by Lisa Batiashvili, Vilde Frang and Nemanja Radulovic´. Some are tiny – Arthur Grumiaux trims just eight bars with Bernard Haitink – while others are more substantial, Yehudi Menuhin excising 254 bars in his live account with Ferenc Fricsay!
Our editor shot me a concerned ‘are you out of your mind?’ look when I proposed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as a Collection subject. There are so many recordings available, from the golden-age greats to today’s young dynamos. I limited myself to 100 versions – ambitious, yes; unhealthy, almost certainly – and decided to undertake the first round of listening ‘blind’. Having reviewed a number of the more recent discs, I wished to go in with a clean slate, without preferences or prejudices hanging over me.
As always, blind listening proved a fascinating exercise, with some big names eliminated early on. Significant early fallers included Menuhin (poor intonation, scruffy passagework), Elman (soporific), Michael Rabin (impetuous but inconsistent) and Gidon Kremer (anaemic). Others suffered at the hands of their conductor: Herbert von Karajan’s sprawling tempos rule out Christian Ferras and Anne Sophie Mutter, and much as I adore Lisa Batiashvili’s luscious, intense tone, the stodgy Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim do her few favours.
Blind listening could not disguise the most maverick version I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t enjoy the disc by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Teodor Currentzis when I reviewed it (2/16). It still sounds perverse.
Four lions of the Russian School
Among the earliest recordings are four eminent violinists of the Russian School, although none was born in what we would now call Russia. Jascha Heifetz (Vilnius, Lithuania) was quite simply one of the great violinists of the 20th century. His sound is distinctive, with a slender yet penetrating tone, wonderfully sweet at the top, a very fast vibrato and an incredible technique. His recording with John Barbirolli and the LPO (5/37) has a twinkle in the eye, while his later Philharmonia account with Walter Susskind (11/51) is often exhilarating. But it’s the 1957 recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that is his finest, even if he is miked extremely closely. From the opening recitative, taken in a single poetic phrase, this is debonair playing, with precise articulation at speed, portamento, dashing spiccato and rapier-like attacks. Heifetz is the Errol Flynn of violinists.
In the Canzonetta, the score asks for the violinist to play with a mute; some follow this instruction, some don’t. Heifetz’s solution is to mute at the start but unmute when the music moves into E flat, allowing the sound to bloom. Elsewhere, he can be a bit cool emotionally, but Reiner provides plenty of drive and orchestral power. The Auer alterations in the first movement may be a bridge too far for some.
Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh were born in Odesa, Ukraine. Both were taught as children by Pyotr Stolyarsky, although Auer invited Milstein to study with him at the St Petersburg Conservatory when he was 11. Milstein plays with a sense of delight, with flair in his double-stopped notes, teasing rubatos and lightness in his staccato. His final recording (1972) understandably enjoys the best sound, since the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado. Milstein has a wonderful tone, sometimes a touch on the sharp side for extra brightness, and plays with affection, but there’s also excitement and a strong sense of impetus. His cadenza is gutsy, even brusque. The Canzonetta has an autumnal glow – Milstein keeping the mute on throughout – but it’s never slow. His finale zings along, aided by speedy Viennese pizzicato precision.
Of David Oistrakh’s various versions, I favour that with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Franz Konwitschny in 1954. He’s not as technically accomplished as Heifetz but the playing marries elegance with brilliance, his leonine tone sinewy but capable of great poetry. Oistrakh can be marvellously spontaneous; there’s a sense of fantasy about the cadenza before strong, steely trills. The Canzonetta is a touch syrupy but is like a warm embrace, impossible to resist. After a scowling recitative, the Cossack finale is a vodka-drenched knees-up, dizzying in its excitement. Oistrakh’s 1959 studio recording in Philadelphia (9/62) enjoys better sound but Eugene Ormandy keeps his violinist on a much tighter rein than Konwitschny.
To Western eyes and ears, Leonid Kogan was always in Oistrakh’s shadow, yet Russian friends express a sneaking preference for Kogan, the connoisseur’s choice. Born in what is now Dnipro, Ukraine, he studied in Moscow, where he first heard Heifetz, whom he idolised. There is an intensity to Kogan’s sound that I find compelling. It is flamboyant and incisive, with rustic double-stopping, a chewy tone and delicious portamento. Kogan recorded the concerto twice with the Paris Conservatoire, just a year apart. The latter recording (1959), brilliantly conducted by Constantin Silvestri, is the one to go for. It contains some hot fiddling – a bold, cheeky cadenza, tasty trills, fierce pizzicatos and bags of character. The Canzonetta swoons and in the finale Kogan’s playing in alt is so sweet that there’s a sense of reverie or blissful reminiscence.
Blind listening threw up wonderful discoveries, names I only really knew on paper. Erica Morini’s studio recording with Artur Rodzinski on Westminster (5/60; now on DG, 1/02) has its devotees but her 1952 live recording with Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Symphony Orchestra is incredibly exciting. Morini displays real personality – a tempestuous cadenza that has some Sheherazade-like arpeggios and an energetic finale. Her tone can be wiry but the playing has verve and volatility.
If helter-skelter risk-taking is your thing, try Ivry Gitlis with Heinrich Hollreiser and the Vienna Symphony somehow hanging on to his coat-tails. Gitlis makes the violin sing, yet is happy to make an ugly sound if required – his cadenza scowls and growls and he sometimes plays so close to the bridge his tone becomes glassy. He plays with lots of vibrato (sometimes difficult to distinguish from his trill) and his muted playing in the Canzonetta has a dusky, throaty quality.
Alfredo Campoli plays with silvery sweetness (Ataúlfo Argenta/LSO). He doesn’t go hell for leather but his playing has dewy freshness. He can be a little sugary in the middle movement but his touch in the finale is as if he were playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Campoli uses August Wilhelmj’s edition, which will cause you to prick up your ears.
Ruggiero Ricci recorded the concerto three times, of which I prefer his second (stereo) version conducted by Malcolm Sargent. His silky tone and fast vibrato make this quite a melancholy, introverted reading, a little timid in the cadenza, but his Canzonetta has a beautiful fragility to it and the finale dances in carefree fashion.
Big beasts Stateside
Of Isaac Stern’s studio versions, the finest is with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy. Stern has a soulful, burnt-caramel tone, and although his first movement takes a while to lift off, when it does his technique dazzles. The finale is fabulous, beginning with earthy, pungent low notes, digging in deliberately, and swaggering portamentos. His later New York Phil recording has its admirers but some of the playing is mannered and Bernstein smothers the Canzonetta.
The New York Phil is heard to better effect with Zino Francescatti under Thomas Schippers. The French violinist is impassioned, if impetuous, taking some phrases an octave higher. His cadenza is highly virtuoso, with very individual double-stopping and glissandos, and he takes a Romantic approach to the Canzonetta, melancholy with a touch of portamento. The New York woodwinds play soulfully here, their hymnlike blend reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant. Francescatti’s tone can be slightly scratchy, the vibrato insistent, but the playing is super-exciting. His earlier recording (with the NY Phil and Dmitri Mitropoulos – 12/56) is nearly as splendid.
No Tchaikovsky survey can overlook Itzhak Perlman, although it’s his first recording I strongly prefer (Erich Leinsdorf/Boston Symphony). This is bold, rich-toned playing, with pesante double-stops, popcorn pizzicatos and lashings of rubato. It lacks tenderness but is the earliest recording in my longlist that is completely uncut.
The 1970s were a fallow period in my survey. Apart from the veteran Milstein (1972), one of the best recordings of the decade was Kyung Wha Chung’s first, with the LSO and André Previn, slightly low-voltage in terms of drama but seductive in tone and refined. Chung was only 22 when she cut that disc but there are plenty of young contenders out there – the Tchaikovsky seems to be a popular first foray into the studio.
Ray Chen, also 22, makes the most intricate passagework sound easy. This is accomplished playing, with buttery tone in the Canzonetta and a sense of impish joy in the finale. Sarah Chang was only 12 when she joined Colin Davis and the LSO in the studio. This is a gentle, reflective account, Chang’s warm tone and sweet trill a delight, although Davis allows the tension to sag.
Leila Josefowicz was 17 when she made her recording debut with a dramatic, full-blooded account of the concerto. She tucks into the double-stopping at a lively tempo and tears through her cadenza in just two minutes. It’s playing with bags of personality and I was pleasantly surprised by the punchy accompaniment of Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. This is a great recording and I am completely stumped as to why Universal has never reissued it on disc.
From Russia with Love
It’s no surprise that Tchaikovsky’s concerto has garnered excellent recordings by Russian violinists. Vladimir Spivakov’s singing tone, with deep-mahogany low notes, is wonderfully unforced with the Philharmonia and Seiji Ozawa. This is sensitive playing and has an exciting finale where the pace picks up. Also with Ozawa, but in Boston, is Viktoria Mullova in a highly regarded early recording (coupled with a terrific Sibelius Concerto). Mullova’s luscious colours are attractive, even if the playing feels a little calculated and uncompromising. But her Canzonetta flows easily and there is energy in the finale.
Maxim Vengerov plays with aristocratic elegance on his youthful 1995 recording with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. His tone can slip into cloying in the central movement but his cadenza is meaty and there are fireworks to close. This is classy playing and Vengerov will be a favourite with many listeners. I prefer, though, the dark-molasses tone of Vadim Repin, a supreme violinist who makes his violin sing. He has recorded the concerto twice but is better supported in his later one, with the Kirov Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. I love Repin’s tongue-in-cheek recitative leading into the finale’s dance.
For a single disc containing all of Tchaikovsky’s violin concertante works, I’ve long admired Ilya Kaler on Naxos, a budget disc that stands up well. His silky, chestnut tone flows naturally, often with a wistful air. The finale is slightly tepid. Vadim Gluzman has a similar medium-weight tone with the Bergen Philharmonic. After an efficient first two movements, there is a dashing finale that sets off like a hare out the traps. On Erato, Valeriy Sokolov brings out the balletic side of Tchaikovsky’s writing in a spry account with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle, a little cool but refreshingly different.
A classy affair
A number of recent recordings caught my ear for the sheer class of playing. These are not the most high-voltage readings but could well provide a great library choice. Gil Shaham made a youthful recording with Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 9/93) that is outclassed by his 2004 effort on his own family-run label, Canary Classics, under Lan Shui. Shaham has a glowing tone and this is a rich wallow, on the melancholy side. There is dark velvet to his Canzonetta and the finale is dainty. Shaham is recorded very closely, almost leaping out of the right-hand speaker.
Julia Fischer plays with great lyricism with the Russian National Orchestra and Yakov Kreizberg. Her tone is lean and lithe but has plenty of excitement. Kreizberg knows just when to press forwards – this gives the orchestral playing a sense of wildness which is the perfect foil for Fischer’s immaculate approach. I love the way how, after the cadenza, she plays the hushed solo line as if just holding back the tears.
I’ve long enjoyed Janine Jansen’s disc with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding. Her tone colours are wine-dark and muscular but there are moments in the first movement where I find the phrasing too hesitant, too contrived, so that it takes a while to get going. But the sense of intimacy in the central movement is lovely and her finale is terrific, Jansen almost tripping over herself in exuberance.
Arabella Steinbacher’s pristine playing is cultured, but hers is not the most dramatic reading. Charles Dutoit sometimes needs a rocket up him, however rich the playing of the Suisse Romande. I prefer the satin tone and coquettish charm of Nemanja Radulović, sometimes a little manicured but with the flair and dash this concerto requires. His gossamer thread of sound in the Canzonetta is breathtaking and his zinging finale should only be undertaken with the aid of a safety net. The recorded sound of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic is occasionally clotted – ideally I want to hear more detail.
A Scandinavian surge
Three recent discs from Scandinavia prove to be among the best. Swedish teens Johan Dalene and Daniel Lozakovich both recorded the concerto in 2019, aged 19 and 18 respectively. Dalene has the slimmer tone, his first entry genteel, the second sweetly nostalgic. He employs imaginative touches and the lightest of bowing in elfin playing that is wonderfully light. At times he loses impetus and gets drawn into playing as quietly as possible, which can come across as mannered. Dalene’s Canzonetta is swift, the finale well articulated, although I wish he’d cut loose more. Daniel Blendulf and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra offer lively support.
Daniel Lozakovich (born to a Belarusian father and Kyrgyz mother) made his concert debut aged just nine in Moscow, conducted by Vladimir Spivakov, who has been something of a mentor. And it’s with Spivakov that he recorded the Tchaikovsky, also in concert, with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia. Lozakovich’s oaky tone and warm vibrato, like snuggling up in front of a log fire, is utterly gorgeous and the occasional portamento gives his playing an ‘old school’ feel. His cadenza is beguiling, poised yet muscular, and the central episode in the Canzonetta throbs with ardour. His rosin‑y recitative that launches the finale has an earthy texture, while his Cossack dancing had me cheering ‘huzzah!’ The Russian orchestra is steeped in this music, the woodwinds luscious, strings dark and grainy. I love that Lozakovich includes Tchaikovsky arrangements by Auer, Elman and Gitlis as his ‘fillers’.
The cover illustration of Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud’s disc – a bunch of roses burning over a flaming city – is apocalyptic and an apt visual for his Tchaikovsky, a swashbuckling reading that is wild and passionate. Kraggerud claims, having seen a first edition of the piano score, that Tchaikovsky tried to make his concerto easier to play by reducing some of the tempos. Parts of his first movement feel very fast indeed, but Kraggerud is well up to the challenge. His violin has a sultry, dusky lower register and the recording has a warm, resonant halo around it. The Arctic Philharmonic provide lusty support and the finale, which rollicks along fiercely, has some imaginative phrasing and bowing from Kraggerud, evoking a folk fiddler. Incendiary playing and a staggering disc.
Choosing a single favourite version is a near impossible task – note I write ‘favourite’ and not ‘best’. I honestly think any of the 30 here will serve you well. Because of recording quality, I wanted to select a digital recording as my prime recommendation, but for a golden-age pick, Leonid Kogan’s flamboyant playing is unmissable. Among the recent contenders, Julia Fischer is the best all-rounder and Henning Kraggerud would be my risk-taking wild card. But it’s Daniel Lozakovich’s panache that completely won me over. And there’s a neat bit of violin lineage here too … Lozakovich’s coach, Eduard Wulfson, studied with Nathan Milstein, who was taught by Leopold Auer, taking us right back to the concerto’s birth and the work’s very soul.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Life is better with great music in it – subscribe to Gramophone today