Last night I went to see Maxim Vengerov perform the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major with the Oxford Philomusica conducted by Marios Papadopoulos. It was absolutely incredible. Maxim and his violin become one, he is such a virtuoso player and so exciting to watch that you can't help but get totally engrossed. Maxim used to record for EMI when I worked there so I popped back stage to see him afterwards. Here is a photograph of the event, please note that there was no-one on stand-by to do hair, make-up or wardrobe and instrument used was an iPhone!
Maxim told me that later this week he is recording the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Oxford Philomusica so I am going to wait for his recording to come out and will recommend it then.
So this week's work is the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op 47 coupled with the Nielsen Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 33 played by Maxim Vengerov. He is playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. This is a regular pairing of these great works as both composers are Scandinavian and from the early 20th century. The Sibelius concerto is one of the most virtuosic and difficult in the entire violin repertoire.
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 composed the Violin Concerto in 1904. From Bach to Bartok most composers wrote the keyboard concertos for themselves but most famous violin concertos are written for others to play. Sibelius wrote this concerto for a kind of ghostly self, he was a talented violinist but due to a late start, the provincial level of teaching in Finland, he had neither the physical co-ordination nor the temperament for such a career.
In no violin concerto is the soloists's first note - delicately dissonant and off beat, more beautiful. He wrote to his wife Aino that he had just had "a marvellous opening idea". But after the inspired start the history of the piece was troubled. Sibelius was drinking heavily and behaved outrageously towards the German violin virtuoso Willy Burmester, who admired Sibelius and encouraged him to write the work and wanted to give the first performance. Yet Sibelius pushed for the premiere to be at a time when Burmester was not free or at best would have too little time to learn such a difficult piece. As such at the premiere, conducted by Sibelius, the concerto was played by Viktor Novack, a teacher with no reputation who furthermore had very little time to overcome the concertos technical obstacles. It was very badly reviewed and the premiere was a disaster. A year later Sibelius produced a leaner score and revised the orchestration that placed less strain on the soloist.
Donald Tovey, musicologist, referred to the final movement as a "Polonaise for Polar Bears". However, not intending to be derogatory he went on to say "I have not met a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius Violin Concerto."
The technical hurdles in this concerto are legendary and not for the feint-hearted which as you can see from the Youtube clip below, Maxim overcomes with ease. Although the work might need a few listens, Maxim's performance is very exciting and exhilarating to watch and listen to. The final movement is possibly the best known.
Carl Nielsen 1865-1931 is considered to be Denmark's finest composer who was a skilled conductor and violinist. He was one of 11 siblings with a mother who apparently sang folk songs all day. However, clearly his parents didn't think he had any future and he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper at the age of 14. When the shop went bankrupt he returned home and went into the military. He never gave up the violin and it was at this stage that he started to take it up more seriously.
The Violin Concerto is largely built in two parts. Each begins slowly, darkly and meditatively and then becomes faster, more energetic and high spirited.