Ever wonder what sort of concertos exist for the violin beyond the marvelous mainstays from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms and Sibelius? Well- there’s a lot out there.
There are a number of tremendous 20th. C concerti that are now pretty well established in the repertoire, such as those by Shostakovich (particularly his First), Barber, Berg, Bartók (particularly his Second) and Prokofiev. Then there are those works which are still relatively rarely sighted in the concert hall, but have been recorded and discussed quite broadly- Korngold’s, Shostakovich’s Second (even greater than the First), the Khachaturian (not a fan!). More recently, there are modern classics by Lutoslawski, John Adams, John Corigliano and Alfred Schnittke. All major works, none heard as often as I’d like live, but all well known among musicians and readily available on disc. Today we’re looking farther out, towards the uncharted frontier of the repertoire.
Of course, there’s no point in directing you towards completely obscure works- if you can’t listen to them, there’s really no point. Here then are 10 pieces you should listen to today. If you can buy the CD, you should- downloading a stream does nothing to support future recordings of unknown music. Vote with your pocketbook for a recording industry that continues to make great music widely available. There’s a lot more out there. This list, while “official” and “all time” is by no means exclusive or complete.
Which works do you think are the unknown gems of the violin repertoire? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The numbering/ordering of the 10 works on this list is completely arbitrary.
- Schumann Violin Concerto
Schumann wrote his final orchestral work for his very close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim expressed great early enthusiasm for the piece, but made a fool of himself during a run through of it with orchestra and then suppressed the work, stipulating it could only be published 100 years after his death. The story of how the work came to light is one of the strangest and funniest in music history. The Violin Concerto has none of the quicksilver wit or boundless fluency of rhetoric that so animates Schumann’s early piano music. Instead, it is austere, strange and often incredibly beautiful music. The slow movement may well be the most haunting few minutes of music written in the 19th C- I can scarcely think of anything so sad and fragile.
- More on Joachim’s dubious track record on behalf of his friends’ music
- More on the Schumann Violin Concerto
- McCabe- Violin Concerto no. 2
John McCabe’s death in 2015 was a devastating blow to British musical life. While by no means an unknown composer, the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment remains somewhat under recognized simply because so many of his major pieces await commercial recordings and regular performances. One such work is his Second Violin Concerto, a large-scale, bold, magnificent work which combines a sort of Bartókian intensity and strength of character with a potent lyrical impulse. It was one of the pieces that those of us who admired and loved John were scrambling to record before he died. I’m still scrambling.
- Gál- Violin Concerto
Yes- I am biased. This was the first piece we recorded for my first commercial CD as a conductor (for Avie). It was premiered in 1933 in the days just before Hitler’s ascension to power, when Gál was still one of the leading composers of the German-speaking world. On that occasion, it was performed by the leading German violinist of the day, Georg kulenkampff with the legendary conductor Fritz Busch conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle. The work had to wait 71 years for a second performance. The infinitely seductive, magical opening melody sets the tone for a work of sublime lyricism. It’s been compared often to the now well-established Korngold Concerto, a work I’ve also always loved. The Gál is an even deeper, greater, more important concerto.
- Gál- Concertino for Violin and Strings
Okay, I know the sceptics among you are starting to raise eyebrows. Two Gál concertos in a row on this list? Surely the author is just trying to sell CDs. Say what you will-Gál’s Concertino for Violin and Strings is that good of a piece. I dare say, it’s an even greater work than his magnificent Violin Concerto. And what’s wrong with selling CD’s anyway? The six years since the completion of the Violin Concerto had seen Gál’s life turned upside down. Written just after his family had fled to the UK, it is a work of serene beauty. Gál’s daughter writes of the work that “Gál did not believe in music as a sounding board for the chaos outside, but rather as a place of refuge from the chaos and an affirmation of transcendent values…” Be sure to listen to the astonishing fugue- it’s amazing music, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out in the recording.
- Schwertsik- Violin Concerto
One of the highlights of my 2015-6 season (and there were actually quite a few) was getting my first chance to conduct the music of Kurt Schwertsik. I heard his Nachtmusiken at the Mahler in Manchester festival in 2010 and thought it would be the perfect work with which to launch my tenure at the Colorado MahlerFest. Getting to know more of Kurt’s wise, sophisticated and ridiculously beautiful music has been a joyful by-product of that decision, and one of the most thrilling of his pieces is his Violin Concerto no. 2, “Alayzin and Sacromonte” dedicated to his wife Christa (“my personal advisor”). Schwertsik’s wonderfully enigmatic introduction to the work takes the form of a poem:
Under southern skies:
Birdcalls at the break of dawn
Olive trees in the fragrant heat
The wild colors of the dusk
The immensity of space in the night
Through the curtain of stars
I almost forgot the palms
- Weinberg- Violin Concerto
It’s easy to see parallels in the lives of Hans Gál and Mieczyslaw Weinberg- both victims of Nazi oppression who had to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. While Gál escaped to the UK, Weinberg went east, settling in the Soviet Union where he became a friend and duo partner of Shostakovich and went on to compose an enormous amount of music. Like Gál, people are finally starting to rediscover and re-evaluate his vast output, and the Violin Concerto is one of his more wonderful offerings. However, where Gál’s music often comes across as a refuge from the horrors of the world, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto plunges us right into the deep end, a sound world of raw emotion and brutal contrast. It’s high stakes, high powered, very moving stuff.
- Hartmann- Concerto funebre
Hartmann’s Concerto may not really belong on this list. It’s been recorded several times and is something of a modern classic among connoisseurs. On the other hand, Harmann’s music seems all but un-programmable outside of the German-speaking world. I first encountered Hartmann via his magnificent First String Quartet. I heard the piece on the radio- my first reaction was that it seemed there was a Bartók String Quartet I didn’t know, but I quickly detected a distinct musical personality in the music and sat in the car till the end of the work to find out what I was hearing. Within a few days I’d tracked down both quartets, the symphonies and much of the rest of his output and have been trying to perform it, without success, ever since. Written at almost exactly the same time as Gál’s Concertino, Hartmann explores darker places. Maybe some advocacy for this, probably his best-known piece, can help open the doors to more regular performances of his music in the rest of the world.
- Busoni- Violin Concerto
2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Busoni, one of the most influential musical thinkers of the early 20th C. There’s been a certain amount of criticism voiced over the fact that his music will go un-played at this year’s Proms, but it’s not generally easy music to programme. His best known work is his monumental Piano Concerto, a nearly 2 hour long musical behemoth for piano, huge orchestra and male voice choir. The Proms are one of the few organizations that could do it justice, but it would have been a massive commitment of resources. Busoni’s relatively early Violin Concerto is a more user-friendly, if less ambitious, work. I conducted it recently and found it to be rewarding for both the audience and the orchestra. The influence of Brahms and Bruch is easy to spot, and there are some charmingly blatant quotes from the Brahms Violin Concerto and his Third Symphony. Busoni lacks the kind of melodic genius that Bruch and Brahms had in spades, but this concerto is a superbly effective virtuoso vehicle nonetheless, and it has a certain quirky humor to it that I find irresistible. Played by someone like the ever-astonishing Frank Peter Zimmermann, it’s a true tour de force.
- Einojuhani Rautavaara- Violin Concerto (1976-7)
I first encountered Rautavaara’s music at Aspen in the 1990’s. We played Angels and Visitations with a ridiculously young conductor on the podium who had a gift for irritating the players like nobody I’ve ever seen. In spite of everyone’s foul mood, the Rautavaara made a huge impression on many of us, and I’ve been struck again and again by the beauty and power of his music. When I raced out to buy Angels and Visitations, I discovered the Violin Concerto in a fantastic performance by Elmar Olivera. Find it. Buy it.
- Deborah Pritcard- Violin Concerto “Wall of Water”, In Response to the Paintings of Maggi Hambling
The first work we commissioned in my time at the ESO turned out to be a gem. Written for the violinist Harriet Mackenzie, Pritchard as written synaesthetically in response to the remarkable series of paintings by Maggi Habling, “Walls of Water.” Pritchard’s one movement concerto is a dark and intense work, but also a very beautiful one. I don’t think it will stay on an list of “unknown works” for very long. In fact, I think it’s not unreasonable to believe that all ten of these pieces will soon be off this list.