The Violin Concerto

“Caricatures are one of the signs of growing fame.” So speaks a leading Sibelius scholar of this cartoon of the composer, drawn in 1904, the year the Violin Concerto was born.

That there are two versions might hint at the shaky start it had, starting with its premiere(s). Sibelius had arranged for the former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra and then renowned virtuoso Willy Burmeister to premiere the concerto in March 1904. Burmeister followed the progress of the work attentively, showing much interest and confidence in its musical value. But Sibelius, broke as usual, was forced to hold the premiere concert one month before the aforementioned date, just to get some cash to tide over.  But perhaps, as a big name, Burmeister would probably have attracted more attention and therefore more ticket sales. But he was unavailable to travel to Finland. So  the soloist chosen was Viktor Novácek, professor of violin at the Helsinki Musical Academy. Unfortunately, this prof wasn’t as good as Leonidas Kavakos on this recording. The premiere got all fouled up.

The original 1903/4 version is about 4½ minutes longer than the final, with a first movement weighing in at a whopping 19½ minutes. It has been called darker and “more massive” in sound; in addition, I found it distinctly more colourful, with many additional decorative touches. Examples include the exciting drumming accompaniment to the violinist’s first big solo [2’09”], the more pungent wind scoring and a greater emphasis on rhythmic and punctuating devices.

The result is distinctly more “virtuosic” in the sense that it is more overtly expressive, in terms of orchestral colour and technical difficulty. This includes a second anguish-ridden cadenza [15’12], highly reminiscent of Bach’s solo partitas, which was entirely removed. In fact, the original first movement is more spectacular and contained many passages of great lyrical beauty (including a “Mendelssohnian interlude” at 14’01”). However it is also more episodic – the material is not as unified as it could be, considering the composer’s penchant for conciseness of expression. Evidently, Sibelius felt compelled to revise it in this light.

Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The original slow movement, Adagio di molto, is the least changed. The most surprising thing here is the tiny cadenza right at the end [9’18”] comprising a simple rising and descending passage. It appears quietly and suddenly from nowhere – like the sudden parting of the night-sky clouds to reveal a spray of stars. It will either impress or confuse, but will definitely raise eyebrows. I’m not surprised Sibelius removed it, but the chance to hear it here is great. Indeed, for my fellow reviewer Johannn d’Souza who used to write with me at The Flying Inkpot (original review), it was a magical touch.

Confession: I love the original finale. It’s exciting as hell! After the opening, there is a dramatic and fast-paced passage missing from the final version. At around 1’20”, this stunning solo part includes exciting descending phrases, pizzicato. Then at 2’27”, rising from the depths of chugging celli and basses, the soloist bursts into a recap of the main violin theme, modulating into the sunlight of D major (at least I think it’s D). It’s not unlike the C major climax of the E-flat “Swan Hymn” of the Fifth Symphony.

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (b.1967), who was the winner of the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in 1985, is a wondrous soloist throughout. Not only does he pull off all the stunts of the “two” concertos here without strain, he does it with real panache. Performing on a Montagnana (1742), his violin is toned with strength, but quicksilver in all the sinuous passages of difficulty. The harmonics of the finale, always a highlight, is sharp as steel, sinewy like a human voice. It doesn’t match the molten silver of Oistrakh, but they both share an expressive conviction that makes you grit your teeth listening to them. The stabbing phrases are shot through with palpable angst. When the orchestra joins in at the end with their loud claps of thunder, you can virtually see storm clouds brewing, sweeping all away in the unmistakable dark grandeur of D minor.

Sibelius in 1905

After its disastrous premiere, Burmeister was naturally pretty smug to hear all the criticism, and offered to play the concerto three times in October. Sibelius declined and announced that he will withdraw the work for revision. When the final version was unveiled, Burmeister was once again unavailable and so it was re-premiered by Karel Halíř in Berlin with the Berlin Court Orchestra with no less than Richard Strauss conducting, in October 1905. The flabbergasted Burmeister, understandably, threw up his hands in disgust and swore never ever to play the concerto. Unlike Sibelius (left), he kept his word.

Sibelius re-dedicated the concerto to Hungarian “wunderkind” Ferenc von Vecsey, then only aged 12. He championed the work throughout Europe from age 13 (eg.with Furtwängler in Berlin in 1928, and in Italy at the Augusteo), struggling to showcase the technical challenges of the piece. (My thanks to Gianluca La Villa, whose comment below contributes to this article. My apologies for being 6 years late).

The concerto remained unpopular even with greats like Joachim, until the 1930s, when Jascha Heifetz championed it and made the classic 1935 recording on EMI.

Kavakos’ experience with the final version shows. He allows the music to breathe, very evident in his nuanced interpretation of the first movement. The soaring flights of the violin are light and expressive, never heavy-handed, and all the more breathtaking. In addition, Kavakos executes little pulling phrases and tiny nuances in the entrances of phrases with naturalness and skill. As for the ending section, “violin fireworks” don’t seem right. Rather, the virtuosic parts are like flashes of lightning in the clouds, quick and brilliant, demonstrating without doubt the millions of watts embedded in them.

Praise to the the Lahti SO for their fabulous support throughout. They perform with great musicality, their place in all this music unforgettable yet unobstrusive, giving all due respect and space to the soloist, as it should be in a concerto. Listen also to the liquid tones of the woodwind. The opening sequence of the finale, where the timpani tata-tums (semiquaver-semiquaver-quaver) run parallel with the tum-tatas of the strings is propelled with stunning precision and great power. I dare you not to feel the sheer musical strength of these musicians. Again, the storm brews strong here, as it does in the tutti sections of the Adagio di molto, which make a beautiful contrast to the tenderness of Kavakos’ playing. His narrow and concentrated vibrato make this an intense experience.

The BIS sound is, as usual, very low on volume but totally natural in its picture. Recorded in the Ristinkirkko (Church of the Cross), in Lahti, Finland, the sound picture is surprisingly articulate, not reverberant as church recordings tend to be.

The effect of the soloist’s strength of personality, the unobstrusive accompaniment of the orchestra and the sound engineering is like hearing music in the midst of mountains. I picture Kavakos standing among the great windswept peaks, the orchestral winds whooshing by majestically, as he pierces the scenic splendour with the defiant ariosos of his violin. Once again, on the final track, the orchestral thunderclaps boom ominously. But now, in the brightness of the final version, the sun breaks through the clouds.

The Sibelius Concerto is the most frequently recorded 20th Century violin concerto. No matter how many versions you own, this is a necessary buy for anyone interested in the work. For those who have always wanted to add it to their collection, there can be no better coupling than the original version. I would kill just to hear the original finale! Again, as in my Karelia review, one should listen to this in perspective, because it is music not approved by the composer.

This recording was only possible through the permission of the Sibelius family, to whom I for one am very grateful. As far as I know, this means that the score has been locked up again after the recording – so catch this performance while you can. 

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47
Original 1903/04 version

WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

Released by kind permission of the Sibelius family

Final 1905 version

LEONIDAS KAVAKOS violin
Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS Records BIS-CD-500
[75:00] full price

The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase is not incapable of eliciting a nice sound out of a violin.

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

10 thoughts on “The Violin Concerto”

  1. The original version of the concerto sound more paced right from the start, when the cadenza at the beginning is deliberately taken slowly and purposefully because it has a continuation of arpeggios to accompany the orchestra. Unfortunately, my friend doesn’t take to that well after being accustomed to the part being played very fast in the corrected version of the concerto. The recording volume is quite inconvenient, at a moderate volume, the soloist is heard very softly and the ochestra can be piercingly loud at moments. (BTW: Tower Records used to stock the CD too, until I just bought it four days ago.)

  2. Thank you for your review of the sibelius concerto. I found it while searching for any information on the Camilla Wicks (see the book “Violin Virtuosos”) performances of the same, recorded live with the Stockholm Philharmonic. Camilla is a friend, and is still active and teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her recording of the concerto was, I believe, remastered and issued in 2000. Please let me know if you have any reviews on her recording; she tells me that Sibelius personally praised her for what he thought was one of the best performances of the work. Jorge Garcia

  3. The Sibelius Violin Concerto final version was dedicated to the star young violinist Ferenc de Vecsey,12 years old, who championed it throughout all Europe from the beginning (e.g.with Furtwangler in Berlin in 1928, and in Italy at the Augusteo)years before Heifertz! I deeply criticize the omission of this important dedication.

  4. Sibelius is the best violin concerto.The most harder and the most serios concerto ever.I have no word form the author…

  5. I recently discovered a complete Concerto in D minor , op 47 by Jascha Heifiz and Sir Thomas Beecham composing. I am attempting to determine the publication date. Thanks. Michael

  6. I agree that the Sibelius is the finest violin concerto. I bought this recording and I am grateful for the opportunity to hear the original version. It is unfortunate that the sound recording level is so unbalanced with the the soloist being difficult to hear. I prefer to listen to the several recordings (one of them live) of the concerto played by Heifetz which I consider definitive, especially the 1959 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl. For a modern recording I recommend the Maxim Vengerov DVD with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

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