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Easiest to Toughest Concertos?

Repertoire: How would you rank the concertos in terms of difficulty?

From Terez Mertes
Posted November 21, 2005 at 01:49 AM

Hi, I'm new here, although I've been lurking and reading posts for several months. I'm an adult beginner - thus the idiot questions I'll be asking. However, I'm writing a story from the perspective of an experienced violinist - thus the questions one might think shouldn't be a concern for a beginner.

I'm curious to know what people consider to be the easiest to the hardest of the violin concertos, maybe a list from 1 to 10 (although I know there are more). In particular, where does the Brahms rank? And the Sibelius? Would someone play the Sibelius concerto for an international competition? If not, what (Romantic) concerto do the top-notch players perform at competitions?

Thanks in advance for your answers to the silly questions I know I'm going to be asking in the next few months. (Like... is vibrato some sort of secret handshake you only learn after being in the club for two years?!)

Cheers!

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 21, 2005 at 02:04 AM
Brahms would rate a 7, Sibelius would rate a 9, Schoenberg rates a 10, Bazzini #1 rates a 9, Beethoven would be a 6...I have a great book by Burnett Toskey that would be quite helpful "Concertos for Violin and Viola: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia" this has all concertos listed, many have been reviewed/summed up by Toskey. Rare book, I won't type them all out for you but if you give me a short list or ask me of a few concertos, I will help you out.

Cordially,

Jon

From Joseph Galamba
Posted on November 21, 2005 at 02:34 AM
Hey, do you know how Dohnanyi would rate against the really common concertos (say...bruch mendelssohn, beethoven, tchaikovsky, etc.)

I've always been curious...^^

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 21, 2005 at 02:55 AM
I'll assume you're talking about his first concerto in d minor...Toskey give's it an 8. Here's what he has to say:

"This is a brilliant violin concerto which should not continue to lie neglected. The music is of highly charged dynamic dramatic character of a very original and daring variety. Exotic modes are woven into the fabric of the music, creating a modernized Rimsky-Korsakovian atmosphere. The violin solo part is spectacular, with advanced passagework of every description, fully exploiting the utmost resources of the solo violin. The solo part contains highly effective arpeggios, scales, doubles, and chords, with also some use of easy harmonics. Although of advanced nature, the solo is easy to play."

Toskey
ISBN 0-9601054-8-4

From Frederick Rupert
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 04:45 AM
You forgot Prokofiev #1. Wildly difficult in the scales in the stratosphere at the end of the first movement, not to mention scherzo.
From Sarah Benedict
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 07:47 AM
I would think that what is hard for one person isn't necessairally the same struggle for another player. It depends on your set-up, technique, and musical abilities. For example,I would think the Beethoven is much harder than the Sibelius because it is harder to make a series of scales sound like music than the obvious Sibelius melodies. But that is just my opinion. :)
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 08:26 AM
For me, getting a perspective on concertos is tough in and of itself. It's like the evolution involved with playing the Kreutzer studies. The first time you play them through, at the level they're usually given to a student, they're fairly tough but not that hard, but the teacher is picky. A few years down the road you've played through the Dont, Rhode, Dancla, Gavinies, De Beriot, some Wieniawski and maybe some Paganini or Ernst, a ton of sonatas and solo pieces. For concertos you've played the Vivaldis, the Mozarts, played through the Mendelssohn and maybe a few of the tougher romantic and modern works.

But then your teacher wants you to go through the Kreutzer book again. This time s/he wants it done perfectly and artistically. The above concerto process starts again and this time it's all different, fingering/positions that were difficult to figure out the first time around are now relatively simple. You play the music at a much higher level. You can analyze the concerto as a totality, you hear things you've never heard before and want to express them your way. You've changed so so has the music.

This cycling through the repertoire (especially going back through the Kreutzers a second time) is very common. Most accomplished violinists have done it.

So for me the question of rating concertos depends on the player's tastes/technique/maturity/musical knowledge/experience. At one time the Beethoven could be rated a 5 later it could be rated either higher or lower, depending on what the performer is trying to do with it.

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 12:11 PM
Considering this question was posed by an adult beginner I think the only logical grading system for his particular use is Toskey's. His point of view is from that of a virtuoso performer and pedagogue. No one forgot the Prokofiev #1 either, shall we name them all? There are thousands. Prokofiev #1 gets an 8 btw.
From Christian Vachon
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 01:14 PM
Hi,

That is a difficult question to answer on many grounds. Too many factors involved. Some concertos are more demanding technically and some less, some require more stamina and some less, some are really hard to put with the orchestra.

For most international competitions, part of the original question that has not been answered, people chose the big warhorses these days: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and more recently Shostakovitch. Of course, some play others, but that is the standard. Most would not dare play Beethoven, not because of difficulty or lack of, but because the jury is more likely to have a set idea on the piece that the contestant may or may not meet, most often to his/her detriment.

Cheers!

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 01:45 PM
I agree with Rick that the difficulty of a piece depends largely on the player. There are some concertos definitely more technically difficult than others, but you have to factor the musicality and sound in also. For example, I'd put Mendelssohn on that list of top ten hardest. It may not be as virtuosic as Tchaikovsky but it is extremely difficult to get the proper intonation and purity of sound. I do agree that any "top 10" list would also include Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Prokofiev. To me, these are the "greats". You could probably add Barber, Wieniawski, Lalo, even Bruch, which lots of people regard as a student concerto (myself formerly included) but is really an extremely rich and nuanced work.
From Ben Clapton
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 01:55 PM
for anyone that's interested, Amazon has a paperback of the Toskey Concertos for Violin and Viola: a Comprehensive dictionary for sale at the "low" price of $268
From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 02:13 PM
It's worth every penny!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 05:13 PM
This is all wonderful information - thanks, everyone for your help here. Yes, Jon, I'd love some more information on a few of the concertos - I'll send you a message.

Cheers,

Terez

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 05:57 PM
Oh, I forgot to mention, strictly technically speaking, the Paganini Concerto is definitely way up there on the difficulty scale. : ) Actually, if you think about it, it's musically a headache too, to make those sappy melodies beautiful.
From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 22, 2005 at 06:36 PM
Ruth: You don't like Italian opera?
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 12:08 AM
Now if I had to start picking violin concertos I love (absolutely LOVE!!!) that are tough (and that I don't think have been mentioned...AND...are underplayed), I'd have to say the W. Schuman, the Chavez, the 2nd Shostakovich, the Nielsen, the Menotti, the Rozsa, the Elgar, the Walton...cripes this barely scratches the surface and I haven't even started with the 19th C.
From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 01:32 AM
The 19th century is certainly the ultimate in underplayed and unheard of concerti...Bazzini's 5 Concertos for instance, don't hear about those much, or Artot, Prume, Bull, etc. You sound like someone I would like Rick, email me anytime!
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 01:48 AM
Wienawski 1 is very hard

3rd Movement of Prokofiev 2 is just annoying

From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 02:29 AM
Pieter: If you think the 3rd movement of Prokofiev #2 is annoying, try the Francescatti recording. It's great, and just might change your mind. You know, in the Shostakovich book, "Testament," Shostakovich says (assuming he actually wrote this book) that Prokofiev didn't know how to write a coda. It's an interesting comment, because Prokofiev codas have always struck me as awkward somehow. One clear exception is the 2nd movement of the 2nd concerto -- absolutely beautiful and just right.
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 06:00 AM
The 1st movement is great too.. the 3rd can be tricky to memorize and feels as if it were written for piano as some parts are very awkward.
From Cheng Hooi Lee
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 06:05 AM
The great Jascha Heifetz told Arnold Schoenberg that a violinist need six fingers to play AS's VC. I heard that this is true. Any comments on AS's VC please?
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 11:02 AM
The Prokofiev concertos are fantastic. Right up there in my top six. I like Bell's version but I'll still stick with Stern on them over everyone else.

Their difficulty for me is in making them sound just right. After all, from a basic viewpoint the majority of the first concerto is not 'over the top' difficult. The 1st movement is not very fast, the 16th notes are definitely not played fast and they are not very hard (though the high Andante assai is tricky but almost more of an exercise). The first 27 bars of the Scherzo are difficult, but 5 or 6 of them are repeated so that helps, and you'll need to do thorough G-string work. The continuous 16th and 32nd note runs in the 3rd movement are hard but great exercises and that movement as a whole is not very fast either. The real difficulty, at least for me, is to get it to sound like Stern: the position work, the perfect bowing, the bravado, the mysteriousness. So I guess what I'm saying is that the slower parts are the hardest, since they're like the Mendelssohn or Mozart or parts of the Beethoven (i.e., they just have to be perfect or they stink). Playing the first theme on the A & E rather than D & A just doesn't work somehow.

I have to agree about the 19th Century Jonathan, it was in many ways the quintessential period of violin-playing (the notion of 'romantic' still influencing us greatly even today...Maw for instance). It was also the period of the great composer/violinist, a tradition that died out in the early 20th Century. There are so many unplayed, technically difficult, yet beautiful violin concertos in the 19th Century that in some ways it's like we've jumped ahead a century without even realizing it.

Has anyone heard Vengerov play the new found Mahler violin concerto. I'm biting bullets waiting for it!

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 11:28 AM
Rick, I also think it was a quintessential period for violin. I saw you mention software in another thread. I wonder if it would be feasible to make electronic arrangements of a lot of these, so that people would at least be able to hear what they sound like. It could be recorded as mp3s and hundreds of pieces would fit on a single dvd rom.
From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 06:18 PM
Cheng: Arnold Schoenberg's response to Heifetz's comment about needing a violinist with 6 fingers to play his violin concerto was, "I'll wait."
From Jamie Puffer
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 03:25 PM
Jon -- I looked up the book you mentioned, thinking it might be a nice resource to have. But oh my goodness, Amazon wants $268.23 for it!! *faint*
From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 07:07 PM
worth every penny I tell ya...then again I'm a big ol' nerd :-)~
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 23, 2005 at 09:42 PM
Jim, now that I'm semi-retired (which means I don't know what to do with myself only half the time) I've gone back to my first fascination with music, composition. I've found that with the new string sample libraries (Vienna, ones for Cubase, etc.) you can finally get some decent sounding string sections in one's midi/wave compositions. I've composed a few pieces (more of experiments to get up to date with the genre) and have done some arrangements via midi.

Yes, with the power of state of the art music scanning software, good sequencing software, and some good conversion software (the new .xml interchangeable format is great for cutting out this step) one can take a piece of music and 'make' oneself a recording of it (not that this is going to be the real thing, but it's a lot better than it was even a couple of years ago)...great for following up on the music-minus-one stuff imho.

From Stephanie Lau
Posted on November 24, 2005 at 01:34 AM
Terez,

If you want to get a list of violin concertos (or even sonatas!) organized into levels, you must go to "violinmasterclass.com". Click on "Graded Repertoire" and you'll find what you want.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 24, 2005 at 02:36 AM
Greetings,
Stephanie is right, but I think there is a slightly better list for shorter pieces, some concertosand tehcnical works in the earlier stages published by the ASTA. That is well worth alook. It doesn`t ascribe levels to that many of the major concertos on, I would guess, the rather sensible grounds, that depending on the player the classification of Beethoven versus Brahms versus Paginini in terms of difficulty is somewhat akin to releasing unwanted fluid through the urethra in a rapidly moving blend of gases surrounding us.
Cheers,
Buri
From Jason Neukom
Posted on November 24, 2005 at 04:48 AM
Hardest ever: Seitz

Mahler has a concerto??

From Kenneth Kensek
Posted on November 24, 2005 at 05:32 AM
Here is information about the new Mahler Violin Concerto recording, which has been released. http://inkpot.com/classical/mahvncon.html
From Violin T
Posted on November 24, 2005 at 02:28 PM
Does anyone know where it is possible to buy the recording of Vengerov of this concerto. I have searched on amazon, and there is no trace of it there.
From Cheng Hooi Lee
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 03:14 AM
Friends - you have been scammed by a Thanksgiving Day joke - no such thing as the Mahler Violin Concerto played by Vengerov!
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 03:56 AM
That graded repertoire isn't very acurate. It lists Dvorak at the second highest level, when it's definately no more difficult than Bruch or Mendelssohn.
From Solomon Rosenberg
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 04:01 AM
lol that Mahler Concerto should've been saved for April 1st.
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 04:10 AM
The article on that is hilarious....
From Violin T
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 04:32 AM
Damn it!!! I want a Mahler Violin Concerto (ViolinT goes to bed sobbing).
From Andrew Sords
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 05:26 AM
Pieter, are you kidding? Dvorak is fiendishly hard...
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 06:16 AM
Greetings,
Andrew, you have the music upside down again...
Cheers,
Buri
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 07:15 AM
Andrew,

Dvorak is certainly difficult, just like Bruch and Mendelssohn are difficult. However, Dvorak is not "fiendishly difficult" in that manner that Brahms and Beethoven are.

From Kenneth Kensek
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 08:06 AM
The article about the Mahler Violin Concerto was posted 1.4.1999 , that is to say April Fools Day. I have to admit, it had me going too.
From Cheng Hooi Lee
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 08:55 AM
Dvorak is hard in places (e.g. broken octave passages as well as the D minor multiple stop section in the 3rd mvt). Still needs work to play well.
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 09:54 AM
Inkpot used to be a good site. It still has lots of good info. Why this? Fiddlesticks!~~! That sucks big time!!!!

And stupid me, I'm waiting for it to show up on DG's site....duh!!!!

From Kenneth Kensek
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 01:41 PM
All I can say is beware of any recording announcements of a long lost Debussy Viola Concerto which may come out the first week of April.
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 03:06 PM
Well it pretty much only takes looking at the excerpt from the "score" of the concerto to find out that it's a joke...
From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 04:59 PM
all the violists will fall for that one, Kenneth.
From Andrew Sords
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 05:21 PM
Pieter,

Dvorak took me longer to learn than Stravinsky...I just felt there were passages that were so unviolinistic....

From Andreas Lantz
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 05:35 PM
LigetiĀ“s violinconcerto may be the toughest one I have heard including Wienawskis.
From Jane Frankenfeld
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 05:39 PM
Bartok, Hindemith, Britten concertos all sound very difficult.

Mendelssohn may not be the most difficult, but Zukerman said he doesn't perform it anymore because it demands "young fingers." (CBC had a great series with Zukermann analyzing various concertos).

Andrew is right. Dvorak is hard. It just has some nasty ugly spots. I don't know a good recording of it. For example, Vengerov sounds dreadful on it. (I think it may be bad music--and that's probably the most difficult thing to play). I have heard some awful live performances of this piece. Just awful.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 05:56 PM
Berg is also a tough one, especially the ending.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 07:13 PM
Jane -- Ilya Kaler has done a very good recording of the Dvorak on Naxos. Stern did a quite good one with Ormandy (I think).
From Violin T
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 10:15 PM
For me Oistrakh and Milstein are the best in this concerto. There is also a wonderful version by Pamlea Frank.
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 25, 2005 at 09:55 PM
Sarah Chang's recording of the Dvorak is really quite lovely, yet Milstein's is still the most memorable for me as I'm such an oldie.

Denisov's violin Concerto (dedicated to Pavel Kogan) gives me the biggest headache to even think of approaching. Kremer gave the premier performance in Milan because it wasn't safe to do so in the Soviet Union at the time.

I've never heard the Denisov concero though I have the score and have looked for recordings many times. In fact, other than a few standard works extremely little of Denisov has been recorded.

Ilya Gringolts has recorded Denisov's Sonata for two violins. I would sure like to hear him on a recording of the Denisov violin concerto!

From Amy Fetherolf
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 01:16 AM
Um, Pieter, I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with you saying that Dvorak is on the level of Bruch g min and Mendelssohn. Just for technique alone, it's on a much higher level. Just try playing that first page immaculately cleanly, and tell me it's the same as playing Bruch. And parts of the third movement are just treacherous. The only recordings that have remotely impressed me were Sarah Chang's and Joseph Suk's. And trust me, it's quite tough musically. It's a lot less straightforward musically than a piece like Bruch. And sure, Mendelssohn has to be perfectly clean to sound good, but so does any other piece. You can't just slop through Dvorak and call it easy.
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 02:21 AM
I don't recall ever calling it easy, in fact it is quite difficult. However on a technical level I don't think it's that much harder than other "hard" repertoire out there.

Musicically Dvorak is a big challenge, as is most of his music because of a lot of superfluous writing. Dvorak writes incredible themes and sometimes has such gorgeous voicings, but then makes it hard to play by connecting all together with somtimes puerile and entirely forgettable material. Therefore, I would submit that musically it is more difficult than Mendelssohn or Bruch.

From Jude Ziliak
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 03:47 AM
Pieter's making a really interesting point. Some of the hardest pieces around are the highly flawed ones-- how do you maintain interest? Can you make it seem cohesive when it's not? Dvorak and Schumann Concertos come to mind immediately.
From Andrew Sords
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 04:35 AM
lol
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 07:32 AM
I should add that I totally respect the opinions of Andrew and Amy, both accomplished students of the violin and players who will no doubt have wonderful careers as performers. I just had an issue with the ranking of repertoire.

I'm finding more and more that tonal music is much easier than later rep. Before the "Tristam chord", the violin repertoire (if you want to talk about tricky spots) is really just a series of scales and arpeggios fused together creatively, that is afterall what a lot of Paganini is. I'm finding that "tonal" virtuosity is a lot more difficult than making sense of the more awkward passages in a Prokofiev concerto for instance, since we aren't hard wired to do those things.

From Bruce Berg
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 05:07 PM
If you go to http://www.indiana.edu/~yvp/rep.htm you will find Dorothy Delay's violin concerto sequence.
From Rick Barker
Posted on November 26, 2005 at 08:23 PM
I'm not going to even suggest that Dorothy DeLay was wrong with this order, simply that I find myself thinking that any teacher's order of grading is going to be based on the principles they are trying to teach, which in turn are based on both objective techniques and subjective tastes.

In a more general, non-pedagogical context as we are in here for the most part, who would say that the Beethoven is more difficult than the Paganini #1?

Now the point here (it's not simply answering the above question), and it's been made several times already, is that watching or being an accomplished violinist playing a concerto such as the Beethoven with a mature purity and in a serene state vs watching or being a graded student scratch their way through the first Paganini has only and obviously ever revealed to me, using this comparison, that the Paganini should itself return into the repertoire somewhere down the line to be played again, this time with mature purity. This would then place it more near the most difficult end of the list.

This is why we have several Paganini virtuoso specialists and no Beethoven specialists, 'and' why some are better than others (i.e., Beethoven or Paganini or ??? performances). There has to be a cyclical nature to the playing of music or taste would be something that could be nailed to a cross.


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