Global Catholic Literature Seminar on Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?
A Note On Flannery O'Connor and Race

Beethoven's Violin Concerto

I've started to follow through on my idea of listening to the four violin concertos praised by Joseph Joachim, one of the great violinists of the 19th century:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

To these four I plan to add the Sibelius concerto, which of course came after Joachim's time. I've heard them all at least once,  but I want to get to know them better. And also to see whether I agree with Joachim. 

Mendelssohn I just recently heard (see this post), and that was what led me to this little listening project. I'm taking them in chronological order, so Beethoven is first. My usual procedure in getting to know any piece of music, classical or other, is to listen to it three times within some relatively small span of time--a week or so. In this case I listened to three different recordings: Heifetz and Munch, ca 1960; Christian Ferras and Karajan, 1967; Perlman and Guilini, 1981 (in that order).

In the past I have been less than enthusiastic about this concerto. On the basis of one or two inattentive hearings, I just didn't think it was, for Beethoven, an especially remarkable piece. (I said so to my violinist son, and he was horrified.) Well, that' the past. I now consider the first movement to be among my very favorite Beethoven works. As far as I'm concerned it could be a standalone work. It's substantially longer than the other two movements combined, and seems to me complete and satisfying in itself.

The second movement, though comparatively brief, stands with it in quality, and leads directly into the third without a pause. It's there that the concerto as a whole falls down a bit. It's a vigorous "happy ending" to a work which has had a distinctly reflective, if not melancholy, spirit. And to me it's a bit of a letdown, the opposite of its intended effect. This is no doubt in part a result of a sense, which I've mentioned before, of temperamental incompatibility between me and the great composer. It's the energetic Beethoven, who sometimes seems to me a bit unconvincing, a bit overemphatic. For that reason, when (or if) I decide to rank these concertos, I don't think Beethoven's will be at the top.

About the recordings: I don't think anyone could criticize Heifetz's performance except on the grounds that it's too perfect. It seems effortlessly perfect, and for that reason a bit chilly in comparison to others. I didn't think that until I heard Ferras, and was struck by a sense of emotional warmth and depth which I didn't feel in the Heifetz. 

Those two were on LPs that I own. For the third listening, I decided to look for recommendations. A while back my friend who's a classical music expert had brought to my attention to the YouTube channel of Dave Hurwitz of Classics Today. He has roughly 1,000,000 videos on YouTube, including a long series on reference recordings: the one, or maybe the few, recordings of some work that he considers to have set the standard. His choice for the Beethoven violin concerto is the 1981 recording by Itzhak Perlman and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carlo Giulini. So that's the third one I listened to (via the IDAGIO streaming service), and, "reference" or not, I definitely prefer it to the others. 

I find Hurwitz a little annoying to watch and listen to, but his opinions are worth hearing. Here's the one where he names the Perlman/Guilini performance as his top choice. (There is a grotesque figure of speech at about 6:10. What was he thinking?)



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)