'Big Five' Top Violin Concertos?

Edited: September 12, 2017, 10:35 AM · A friend of mine, the Chicago arts journalist Kyle MacMillan, wrote this article about the upcoming season for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in it he talked about the "Big Five" violin concertos; he listed the Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos as those "Big Five."

Hmmmm. Good list, but I feel like there's room for argument here. What do you feel would be on the list of the "Big Five" top violin concertos?

Replies (44)

September 12, 2017, 9:48 AM · I'd say Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and then Mendelssohn.
Edited: September 12, 2017, 9:58 AM · Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, Sibelius would be in my list for sure. Hard to decide for the fith one, but Mendelssohn has a good standing for rank five.
Schostakovich is a personal favourite for me too.
September 12, 2017, 10:03 AM · I suppose that, in the context of symphony orchestra repertoire, the "Big Five" should be scored for solo violin and a big juicy orchestra. But in an ideal world, I'd probably want to put the Bach A minor and a Mozart concerto in a top five list. I guess that's where "Big Five" and "Top Five" would be different!
Edited: September 12, 2017, 10:28 AM · I agree with Mr. Sumner-would classify them in this order of "preference" for the "modern" audience (a concept which I am not fond of):
Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius. The Bruch are beautiful (though I assume No. 1 is the work alluded to), but honestly rarely performed-I am fond of the Scottish Fantasy, which is very seldomly performed nowadays.

In the end, the Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Sibelius end up being the most publicly performed of the 5, everywhere. No place for Goldmark, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, or even Dvorak. Even the Mendelssohn is not played as often anymore. Every soloist is likely demanded to play the usual warhorses-which of course are great works, but a bit too much of a limited repertoire in my estimation.

(Of course, the above and many other "lesser" rarities are still "performed", but so rarely, it almost doesn't count for the purpose of my statement.)

The "bad taste/dumb audience music" era of the 19th Century and early 20th was so much more diverse; I wish I could revisit those concert evenings with time travel.

The Mozart Concerti are not as popular nowadays either, at least for the violin...HIP, for all its virtues, is "stealing" from "modern" ensembles the joy of great music-making. I advocate that both approaches are viable, but once you go "hardcore HIP", you find modern playing lacking "authenticity."

I should note that these "Big 5" listed above are not MY favorite Concerti, but more a reflection of what the "modern" concert scene looks like, what "modern" violin playing and teaching "boils down to", and what people "know and like the best", IMHO.

The 1st Shostakovich and 2 Prokofievs are performed often (more than the Mendelssohn or Beethoven, IME in NYC), but I feel they do not make it to the aforementioned "Big 5" list, ironically enough.

September 12, 2017, 10:18 AM · Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Mendelssohn seem like the right list for greatest violin concertos with a big orchestra. If I had to throw one overboard to include a Mozart, I'd toss Sibelius to make room.

For concertos in one's progression of learning, I think this is an idea: Bach A Minor, Mozart G Major (maybe it should be #4 or #5 instead, really), Bruch G Minor, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky. I think the later list is more interesting, really.

Edited: September 12, 2017, 10:22 AM · My personal top 5 pick: Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Bruch (G minor), and Mozart 3.
September 12, 2017, 10:33 AM · No room for the Rieding B Minor I guess....
September 12, 2017, 10:37 AM · I would replace Brahms with Sibelius. Don't get me wrong, I love the Brahms, but there is something magical about Sibelius.
September 12, 2017, 10:48 AM · Paul, I'm afraid not.
September 12, 2017, 11:02 AM · Replace Brahms with Sibelius?! That's a Sophie's choice if ever I heard one. I'd put Brahms and Beethoven at the very top, followed by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky and I guess Mendelssohn (although I'd rather hear or play Prokofiev (1 or 2), Bartok 2, Barber, or Mozart Sinfonie Concertante--can that last one count?)
September 12, 2017, 11:13 AM · Typical presentation of masterpiece syndrome. Basically all romantic, with Beethoven's on the edge. I think it is incredibly difficult to choose just five, but they should at least represent a decent time span. I think one of the Bach concertos is good to include. I would also vouch for Bartok and Prokofiev.
September 12, 2017, 11:56 AM · I prefer the original list of the Big five. The Sibelius has its moments, but it does not resonate with me as much as others.
Edited: September 12, 2017, 12:32 PM · Neither on the article nor in this list Vivaldi is mentioned. Of course the "big five" are the often performed, etc, but I picked up the violin when I listened to the four seasons, when I was a little kid. I cannot imagine a list without Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach however. As a matter of personal preference I would add Beethoven and Sibelius. My apologies to the Tchaikovsky Brahms and Mendelssohn fans :P


P.S. I would even place on my personal top 5 Bruch ahead of Tchaikovsky Brahms and Mendelssohn. If there was enough "room" in the list.

September 12, 2017, 2:47 PM · No question -- audiences love the Bruch. Sibelius is great, but I would say it's more "for music lovers" than Bruch.
September 12, 2017, 3:00 PM · I'm not quite sure why, but I very strongly dislike the Beethoven concerto. My favorite concerto by far is the Joachim Hungarian Concerto in Dm, but it's rarely played, so it wouldn't qualify. I would rather the Sibelius be up there than the Beethoven.
September 12, 2017, 4:55 PM · How about the five I always hear in auditions at the youth orchestra level? I'd make the case that these five are played more often by students than any of the others!

1. Vivaldi A Minor
2. Seitz Op. 22 or Op. 13
3. Bach Double (sometimes single haha)
4. Mozart G Major (No. 3)
5. Bruch G Minor

September 12, 2017, 5:13 PM · I like and second Gene's top five.
September 12, 2017, 6:16 PM · I guess I'll make an attempt at my five favorites in no particular order:

1. Mozart Sinfonia Concertante ( I know it's a double concerto, but I guess it fits )
2. Bartok No. 2
3. Prokofiev No.1
4. Tchaikovsky
5. Bach A minor

September 12, 2017, 6:53 PM · One of my parents' record purchases-- maybe from a club-- had what was then the big four: Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. When Joachim listed Germany's big four, he replaced Tchaikovsky with Bruch.

Today, I'd keep the first list and add the Sibelius. There may be a handful of pieces out there that may be as well-constructed musically while being as appealing to violinists, but they haven't captured the public's imagination yet. Include in that group Berg, Britten, even the Mozarts, whose popularity borrows from the rest of Mozart's catalogue.

September 12, 2017, 7:57 PM · My 5 Favorites:

Lalo F Major Concerto (NOT Symphonie Espangole)
Mozart 4
Wienawski 2

Edited: September 13, 2017, 11:44 PM · Gene, lol yes!

I was wondering when someone was going to bring up Lalo!

September 13, 2017, 6:11 AM · For 'big' concertos I'm thinking of long duration, a weighty solo part and which pack a big 'punch'. Perhaps Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich 1 and maybe Bruch no 1 (rather than Mendelssohn).
But my personal top 5 choice (ie concertos I would play if I could....) would include none of these. Today it's Vivaldi (op8 no 11 perhaps), Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, Beethoven, Nielsen, Britten. Tomorrow it might be slightly different......
September 13, 2017, 8:44 AM · Evan,

I used to find Beethoven VC very boring until I heard Kyung Hwa Chung's recording for the first time. People all have different tastes and perhaps you may find an inspiring performance somewhere.

September 13, 2017, 3:50 PM · How about Berg violin concerto? The 5 big B's: Bach A minor, Beethoven, Brahms, Berg and ...Bruch? But I do like the saturnine Shostakovich and the Sibelius, it has lovely melodic line that is very hummable.
Edited: September 13, 2017, 11:48 PM · What if they had to all be written in the last 50 years? So, since 1967...
Edited: September 14, 2017, 4:02 AM · My father's 1950s list was Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Paganini (I think he meant No 1). My teacher in my teenage years, Winifred Copperwheat, added Sibelius to make the Great Six. In those days, hardly anyone I knew put the Bruch up there! But Dad was later informally commissioned by Bosworths to make a potted first-position version of the Bruch as the first of what became his "Easy Concertos" series (All out of print now, of course, so this mention is NOT a commercial).
September 15, 2017, 5:55 PM · For a list of the best written over the last 50 years probably the Adams is a contender, also Salonen and Glass. Butterfly Lovers' Concerto is just a little outside the window (1959). Lindberg?
Edited: September 16, 2017, 3:44 PM · This is my opinion of the best four, which Itzhak Perlman considers to be the four 'main' and 'most played' violin concertos :D)

1. Beethoven
2. Mendelssohn (the heart's jewel)
3. Brahms
4. Tchaikovsky

You can hear Itzhak Perlman opinion in the direct video below at around 0:20. Note that he avoids saying they are the 'best' violin concertos (to avoid disagreement of course), but he probably seems to imply that they are, in deed, the best (in his words, he refers to them as the four 'main' violin concertos, plus all his hand gestures and some of facial expressions).


Interestingly, in the same video at 0:33 he dismisses Sibelius and Dvorak, among others, as being 'lesser' than these four. I don't know about Dvorak, but I have listened to Sibelius countless times (performed by Heifetz and Sarah Chang). While I like Sibelius, I honestly feel that it is a bit overly dramatic, showy and affected (sorry) and lacks the flavours of royalty, an air of nobility and a taste of purity compared to the first four. I know it sounds funny, but this is exactly how I feel, and I didn't copy from eslewhere.

I would vote for Sibelius as the fifth position (vying with bruch) outside of top 4. I don't like bruch as much as Sibelius, but I have read that bruch is cited more often as one of big 4 or 5 than Sibelius.

P/S I am an avid concerto listener and a beginner-intermediate fiddler.

Edited: September 16, 2017, 6:11 AM · 69 years ago, in my mid teens, I purchased a "music book" (Piano and Violin parts) at the local music store for $1.25. It was called "STANDARD VIOLIN CONCERTOS (Containing the Ten Violin Concertos Universally used for Concert and Study Purposes). The table of contents is listed below (as it appears on the front cover of the piano part:
"Bach-Concerto in A Minor
Beethoven-Concerto in D Major
Brahms-Concerto in D Major
Bruch-Concerto in G Minor
Lalo-Symphonie Espagnole
Mendelssohn-Concerto in E Minor
Paganini-Concerto in D Major
Saint-Saens-Concerto in B Minor
Tchaikowsky-Conceerto in D Major
Wieniawski-Concerto in D Minor"

For me this was a wonderful list to go to work on; the Bach was an easy read, I had been working on the Mendelssohn when my Dad told me we were going to see Hefetz play the Beethoven as my 16th birthday present - so I became consumed by that for the next 6 months . The book was published in 1924, the same year Sibelius first conducted his revised version of the concerto and only 20 years after he finished composing the original version - so it could not have been in the book. I have hacked away at everything in the book and have seen great violinists play the"top 5" in Laurie's list plus the Sibelius and others.

My violin part was well-shredded decades ago and my 2 attempts to replace it (from ebay and Amazon) in the past 20 years for myself and a couple of students resulted in fairly expensive receipt of 2 practically new piano parts - but no violin parts. I guess everyone who has owned it wore out their violin parts and the sellers have had no idea what they are supposed to be selling.

There is no way I would want to limit my favorite concertos to a list of 5. There are the Mozarts (at least 2 - 5), the other Bachs (including the double), and then the other doubles (Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante) and triples (Beethoven) -- and all the other wonderful compositions of the past 150 years For me Heaven cones to Earth during the Bach, Mozart, and Brahms doubles.

The term "BIG" when applied to a concerto implies something special to me, something I did not understand until I attended an Erick Friedman performance of the Brahms. There were moments when the sound of his violin was pretty much submerged in the orchestra's sound - yet his overtones poked through to demonstrate the genius of Brahms understanding of the total ensemble. This was an experience I have not had listening to concerto recordings or even in concerts by Stern (Brahms), Heifetz (Beethoven), or Perlman (Tchaikovsky), Hahn (Elgar), Mendelssohn (Meyers) and Chang (Sibelius) all of whose power, my location and the hall acoustics tended to favor the violin. I think there is something "heroic" to the big concertos when they are performed and heard at their sublime best.

Sometimes I think the recording engineers doctor the recorded sound to favor the soloist at the expense of the composers' intentions - and to boost sales.

Edited: September 16, 2017, 5:47 AM · Will Willy, I dont understand what a taste of purity or flavour of royalty is (i also don't see how royalty is a good thing but that is another topic) in this context. But there is such a beautiful momentum in the Sibelius concerto that is really special. Yes it is dramatic but thats not necessarily a good or bad thing by itself
. Im no scholar but i do find its harmonic world enticing. Also while being a bit jarring its also very human, not exactly a folk tune but very tangible nonetheless. There are famous concertos that are difficult to hum, to internalize. This one not so.
Edited: September 16, 2017, 8:09 AM · Tammuz, royalty not in a sense of class or wealth. It is hard to explain as I'm not a native speaker. Sibelius is no doubt one of my all-time favourites, but I was just trying to demonstrate why it may not be as 'good' as the first four, although it enjoys great popularity as well. While I have so much delight listening to Sibelius, I feel that it's quite unique in some regards (both good and not so), and seems to have a different flavour to all other violin concertos I have heard. To me it is a bit too close to, but still within , a boundary that separates classical music with other kinds of music. However, It is no doubt one of the most famous violin concertos ever written, and I honestly meant it.
Edited: September 16, 2017, 8:12 AM · Speaking of drama, while the Sibelius tends to over-emphasize it, the Mozart violin concertos (like No 3 and 5 - best performed by Hahn and Mutter) fall into the other extreme: they boast too little drama and too much purity, and they tend towards being overly playful, platonic and innocent, lacking moments of intensity, convolution and solemnity as in the best four (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky in my opinion). Therefore while Mozart violin concertos are quite pleasant to hear, it is rather easy to forget them - since they don't evoke a sufficient dose of intense feelings and obsession when you listen to them.
Edited: September 16, 2017, 8:26 AM · I would disagree with the suggestion that Mozart concertos are less dramatic. In fact, the famous Mozart aria in his opera Magic Flute and Mozart 3rd share a lot of similarities, in particular the so called "Mozart sigh."
Edited: September 18, 2017, 6:48 AM · Let's hear it for the Elgar VC, on both counts of majesty and size! Not forgetting that it was written for Fritz Kreisler.
September 16, 2017, 1:09 PM · In answer to Laurie's question about concertos written since 1967:
Phillip Glass, Lou Harrison (for percussion and violin),Shostakovich #2, Cristobal Halfter, Elliot Carter.
Edited: September 16, 2017, 8:24 PM · Paul, I'm surprised that you would consider Butterfly Lovers' Concerto one of the *best written*.

How about these written since 1967:

Ginastera Violin Concerto op.30 (1963)
Ligeti violin concerto (1993)
Tishchenko violin concerto #2(1982)
Rochberg violin concerto (1974)
Schnittke violin concerto #4 (1984)
Salonen (2009)

Edited: September 16, 2017, 4:55 PM · Yixi, as I would expect people would come up with lots of names (many of which could be largely unknown to others), since it is quite natural, and tempting (myself included) to liken the 'biggest violin concertos' with 'my personal favourites'.

Perhaps the question would be clearer if it clearly specified the set of criteria on which the concertos are judged (most performed, most studied, most discussed, most acclaimed, and/or even most viewed on a video-sharing channel, etc.)

However personally I do agree with Laurie's list. The best and biggest five is very likely to include Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Bruch, based on whatever set of objective criteria I can think of.

September 16, 2017, 5:17 PM · Will Willy, point taken. I just like to challenge Prof Deck from time to time, as a good student would;)
Edited: September 16, 2017, 5:38 PM · I just listened to Butterfly Lovers. NO, OH NO! :D :-))

It could be the top of its own genre, but IMHO it's nothing like the classical music that I know of, and therefore a bit out of place in this context.

September 16, 2017, 6:23 PM · "No room for the Rieding B Minor I guess.... "
Haha! got me!
I always feel, that the Sibelius should be on the Top on those lists, but on the other hand I understand, why it is not.
I don't agree that the Sibelius has a pathetic touch. If so, then it is the performers fault!
To me one thing is for sure: I would never vote in the Bruch and dismiss the Sibelius.
Bach and Mozart deserve places on that lists as well, but it seems, that indeed the romantic period was the strongest for violinists. And being on the trails of the Paganini, I think, that indeed Paganini should get a place in a list like this too.
And now that I am thinking about it... what happened to the Schumann concerto? It is a masterpiece I think and so underrated.
Ok, I try:
1. Beethoven
2. Mendelssohn
3. Sibelius
4. Schumann
5. Brahms
But there MUST be a modern Concerto as well, who could take a place in that list. I simply don't know enough to decide. Maybe Schnittke or Berg? Berg isn't mine though.
This is pointless. I feel like my list is as bad as every list. it is just so much written for the violin.
Think about that question in a viola repertoire forum:
1. Bartok
2. Walton
3. Hoffmeister
4. Stamitz
5. -------------

Just joking, but really: we violinists are spoiled!

September 16, 2017, 8:00 PM · for the viola, Hindemith or Forsyth?
Edited: September 18, 2017, 4:16 PM · (A bit out of context: the Shostakovich #2 Vln Cto is post-1967, though it doesn't sound "too modern", and the orchestration is not as heavy as in the first. I absolutely love that Concerto, even knowing it won't make any "big" lists-sadly, it is also not often performed.)

Edited to apologize to Mr. Berg, as he had already mentioned the Shostakovich 2nd.

September 18, 2017, 12:30 PM · @Simon, for the first 5 in the viola list I'd add in Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" (written for Paganini).
September 18, 2017, 4:57 PM · As a college student studying violin, the big five, in my opinion, would have to be,

1.) Barber
2.) Mendelson
3.) Saint-Seans
4.) Tchaikovsky
5.) Any of the Mozart Concertos

I believe that Barber is one of the most underrated concertos. I'm quite surprised it hasn't appeared on this list already. It's very much one of those concertos that sound as if it would be easy to learn, yet when given the music in front of you it's actually a very dificult piece of music both technically and musically.

The first two movements are breathtakingly gorgeous, yet combine different bow strokes, and other technical aspects in such a clever way. The third movement requires quite a lot of attention to detail and a great ability to focus given the hemiola when overlapped with the accompaniment, and the great speed that it's supposed to be played at!

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