Inside Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

Monday, May 16, 2016

Arabella Steinbacher joins Ariane Todes to discuss the intricacies of this fiendish piece

Arabella Steinbacher is getting excited by the score of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto that I’ve brought with me – but it’s the wrong one. It’s the edition by Leopold Auer, and she’s working out how it’s different from her own copy. Auer famously refused to perform the work, which was initially dedicated to him, because it was too difficult. This led to a falling out with the composer, and, according to Tchaikovsky in his letters, ‘had the effect of casting this unfortunate child of my imagination into the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten’.

Tchaikovsky rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who premiered it. Auer eventually recanted and made extensive changes to the work in order to be able to play it, and taught it to his venerable students (including Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist and Seidel). Today we’re used to prodigy and superstar alike trotting the work out and think nothing of its technical challenges.

Various players, including Heifetz and Kreisler, have since made their own tweaks, but Steinbacher now plays Tchaikovsky’s original version, without cuts, in the David Oistrakh edition: ‘I was used to playing it with the cuts and nobody said anything, but when I performed it with the conductor Yakov Kreizberg he made me promise to play it without.’ As well as changing some of the notes themselves (and not always to make them easier), Auer took out some of the repeated phrases. ‘But,’ says Steinbacher, ‘these repeats make sense. Tchaikovsky wasn’t such a bad composer that he didn’t know what he was doing.’

Steinbacher has been playing the work since she was 15 and makes light work of the technical challenges, but she feels that it too often gets misrepresented as a virtuoso vehicle: ‘For the public it’s a very exciting piece and it can be played like a showpiece, but I’m sure Tchaikovsky didn’t mean to create a showpiece. There are so many delicate moments you can bring out. It’s a pity when you just play over them.’

This thinking is borne out on her new CD by her approach to the opening cadenza, with its notably leisurely pace, lingering over the long, arching phrase. ‘The orchestra gives me its hand so I can continue this line and bring out the melody,’ explains Steinbacher. ‘Charles Dutoit tried to make the orchestra not slow down too much. They’re coming to me and I just take that over and start my theme. It’s like a cadenza, so I can take my time and feel free. It’s a beautiful moment when the orchestra comes back in with the soft string sound and thepizzicato.’

The sense of space she gives to the main theme allows her to characterise it as she sees fit: ‘You can see so much of the influence of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, especially in the first movement. Quite often it’s played in a virtuoso way, and it is virtuoso; but when the theme starts properly, all the figures are so balletic – it’s like dancers making pirouettes.’

One of the challenges when bringing out the music of the work is the stratospheric writing, which takes the player right up to the top of the violin, a difficult part to make sing: ‘It’s important not to get too scratchy for the sensitive character of the piece. When you have these high bits the orchestra is loud, so you have to play fortissimo. The challenge is not to press too much, because the sound can get ugly.’

The main cadenza divides the first movement, and after that the key changes and the writing becomes harder. ‘The key is more brilliant, but everything becomes more exhausting for the hands, because you have more difficult runs, they’re higher, and you’re getting to the end of the movement. You’re getting tired, but you have to keep up your strength.’

Steinbacher explains that the second movement represents some of the emotional turmoil Tchaikovsky was feeling when he wrote the work in 1878, having just come out of a disastrous and short-lived marriage to Antonina Milyukova: ‘When he wrote it, he was in depression, going to a resort on Lake Geneva to recover. It’s not a depressing piece, though: the only movement that has melancholy moments is the second, so maybe he felt quite free after he got divorced. He writes in his letters that he wanted to express his longings and that it was healing for him to write this piece. The concerto was like medicine for him.’

The second movement also benefits from Steinbacher’s pared-back approach: ‘I try to keep it simple rather than getting too emotional. It is emotional, but it’s not such an intense melody. It’s more like a song. It’s like you’re walking by a lake, thinking about something in the past – melancholic but not terribly sad. The most beautiful moment is when the theme comes back and the clarinet comes in. Every time I play it with Dutoit, he tries to make the clarinet improvisatory, as if it’s pirouetting. It’s also important to get very quiet, all the way topianissimo.’

One challenge here is the repetition of the lush main subject: ‘The theme comes back so many times, so in the beginning I try to keep it more in the shade, not too outgoing. Then, when Tchaikovsky writes con anima, it’s like the sunshine comes through the clouds. It’s on the E string and this positive energy comes through.’ Again, there is an improvisatory feel to the writing, especially towards the end, with the final return of the theme: ‘I play an improvisation around the orchestral theme. I’m playing around them and they have the long melodic lines.’

How does she approach the thrill ride of the last movement? ‘Musically it’s not that difficult. It’s very motoric and energetic. It’s very straight and the tempo has to be strict, so it’s nice to bring out the contrasts with regard to dynamics, and you can do a lot with all the decrescendos and crescendos. It becomes more exciting if you bring out as much of that as you can.’

Apart from the manic runs of the last movement, there are also some lovely Russian folk-like interludes: ‘When we come to the molto meno mosso we have a Russian theme, which sounds to me like a drunk trying to walk in a straight line. You can really play around with the tempo here. The orchestra has to stay stable, though – it’s like the ground underneath this drunk person. Then comes tempo one again, with lots of down-bows, which is a funny Russian dance.’

In some performances, the last movement feels like a mad-panic frenzy of crashing notes; so what does it feel like to be at the centre of this storm? ‘There is a lot of adrenaline. You have to keep your nerve. You play even faster because you know it’s coming to the end. Then there’s the finale, where my double-stops alternate with the orchestra and timpani. Here the orchestra usually gets very loud, and conductors try to pull the players back a little from that dynamic. It’s a very exciting ending, and such fun.’

The historical view

Eduard Hanslick – Neue freie Presse, December 5, 1881

‘For a while it proceeds soberly, musically, and not mindlessly, but soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and dominates until the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played: it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue.’

Leopold Auer – Letter to Musical Courier, NY, January 12, 1912

‘My delay in bringing the concerto before the public was partly due to [the] doubt in my mind as to its intrinsic worth, and partly that I found it would be necessary, for purely technical reasons, to make some slight alterations in the passages of the solo part.’

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Letter to Nadezhda von Meck, March 1878

‘On this occasion I could not overcome my desire to make rough sketches for a concerto, and afterwards became so carried away that I abandoned work on the [Piano Sonata in G, Op 37].’

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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Gramophone. To find out about our various subscription options, visit:

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