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Idle thoughts on the Beethoven concerto.

January 22, 2009 at 1:07 AM


This blog was inspired by Larisa`s response to my last blog.
  I think the Beethoven concerto is probably one of the most frustrating works a violinist can possibly attempt.  Is it classical or romantic ?  Are these elemnts combned and does one`s playing have to reflect this issue?  I think it was Oleg Kyla who said in his way they play interview that it took him many years to come to terms with this work.  Hilary Hahn talks about how her teacher (Brodsky) would not allow her to play it until she had done all the other major repertoire.
It is one of the few works in the repertoire where there are very few satisfactory recordings by today’s  players and I mean technically as much as musically.  This surprises me very much because there is no doubt that in many ways today’s violin playing can be said to have advanced technically.     The first thing that bothers me and leads me to discard a recording without much regret is the intonation.   I only have to listen to the first soaring solo violin melody to know if I will be able to tolerate the performance because the intonation blends with the orchestra to form a satisfying whole.  The players who come closest are believe it or not, at least in my opinion,  Kreisler,  Heifetz,   Szigeti,  Szeryng, Kogan and the Menuhin /Furtwengler recording.  Of modern players I rate ASM in this.   I suspect Ilya Gringolts would be in there but I have not heard him.
Aside from more sensitive intonation  think a quality these older players had was a greater skill for recognizing that although their part `appears` soloistic it is actually merely an accompaniment to a bassoon solo or whatever.  It is a degree of humbleness of great significance.   Another aspect of this work is that it is a reflection of reflectiveness. What I mean by this is that older players actually took a lot more time and had lives limited by lesser ease of transport.  One hears of Milstein and the like taking the whole summer off to play tennis or others like Heifetz staying at home and preparing for the coming `season.`  The seasonal element is missing in the frenetic pace of modern superstars.
I am also interested in the developmental path of violinists and how it affects the later performance practice.  What i mean by this is that if one looks at the repertoire list of Auer in his book and compare with the modern approach to training young virtuousa one finds that today`s youngsters are banging out major works from the age of five or six without a care in the world. They simply don`t study the Spohr concertos, `a great deal of Vieuxtemps,`   and so on.  Heaven forbid they often haven`t even done justice to three or four Handel sonatas as Auer recommends. On the one hand this perhaps reflects greater scholarship and taste but on the other i think something has been lost.  The Ernst and Spohr concertos,  for example are fiendishly difficult ;  Viotti played well is no walk in the park.   The Rode concertos are sufficiently serious works that Wieniawski wrote an excellent cadenza for one of them. I have this lunatic pet theory that playing these kind of works before moving onto the greats later gives very solid tools for approaching the nebuluos and chameleon quality  of the Beethoven.  The later requires tremendous elegance and virtuosity- it is not just something one listens to with crossed eyeballs murmuring `wow,  I have found God!`
In a sense the Beethoven is a truly cruel mirror that reflects who you are as a person.   If you are only a violinist and not a well rounded and compassionate human being then your performance will simply reflect that.  Funnily enough,  greatest `Beethoven for me that still reverberates in my minds eye was actually by a not so well known violinist (sorry Mr Parikian) and an amateur orchestra in Britain.  Interestingly,  I found out years later that Manoug Parikian had been an esteemed colleague of Szigeti and they exchanged letters on a regular basic in which they competed to find the most esoteric yet practical fingerings for difficult passages in the repertoire.  I wish I could have gone to the RAM and studied with him ;(
One things for sure, you will never find any two violinists agreed on how to interpret this elusive score......

From Larisa Mihaela
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 2:27 AM

Thank you! :)

You are right , the soloist must have a great deal of humbleness while playing this concerto .I always felt that the melody , the important parts , are not in the solo violin part, but in the orchestral part. Indeed , it is like the violin has an accompaniament role at many points. The main theme is played over and over again , by the ...orchestra. The solo violin seems to approach only variations of the principal themes .


I didn't find , so far, in today's musicians , a performance of this concerto that would confirm me that yes, this is what Beethoven felt..I found this, however, in recordings of Kogan , and Heifetz. My favorite for this concerto is Kogan , and here he is my inspiration .

And , indeed , this concerto is so hard (maybe not technically harder than the other major concertos , but when speaking about interpretation , it is a lake without bottom..). I feel I have so much to understand it , to make it trully mine. I would definetely never take it to a competition now , at this point in my life. I feel this is going to be a life's work for me . But it is , none the less, the most beautiful violin concerto to me.

Thanks for responding , and have a nice evening! :)


From sharelle taylor
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 7:18 AM

As a child I knew of Beethoven only for Fur Elise and a couple of symphonies, had no idea he composed a work only for violin.  When I was 21 I cycled around Britain, and with my then very new Sony Walkman casette player strapped on I was looking for an alternative to the Beatles White album (which from memory required 2 long playing tapes) and some Bob Dylan.  On a whim I bought a double cassette of Arthur Grumiaux playing Beethoven, Tchaik, Mendelssohn concerti and something else possibly.  I wore out the tape over the next two years of travelling, and Grumiaux for me has always been my favourite for the mnedelssohn and the beethoven - but not the Tchaik.  Once I heard Vengerov, I moved my allegiance :).  I was a non violin playing admirer.

I replayed the overture before the violin enters so many times I knew every part of every instrument by heart.  I had many freezing, alone nights - long nights - with only that tape, and it is inextricably associated now with that time.  Thanks Buri for giving me some greater depth to hang that memory on.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 2:57 PM

The local conservatory orchestra plays Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Resphigi and all the big orchestra music with some panache. A few years ago I heard them do Mahler 4. It didn't sound right. But when I look at their repertory for several seasons there is no Haydn or Mozart, very little Beethoven and only occasional Brahms. Most of the earlier masters can only be played in the chamber Orchestra. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 4:43 PM

yes this is so true. I haven't play this yet and will probably never or never entirely but many soloists say this about the concerto.  I saw one of my greatest modern idols: Vadim Repin playing it live and he really plays it well. He was very much influenced by Menuhin since the two men saw themselves regularly when he was studying the concerto (or something like that).  I loved this version very much.  But Repin said so many times all the typical things: one of the hardest even if it looks easy, very hard to play full secure, always surprises, being "naked" in public to use his expression.  I also listened to a short youtube where Oistrakh talks about the concerto  and it was really interesting. His manager was translating his words in english...  However, I think this doesn't just applies to Bethoven concerto. How often do violinists say of one thing (for example Mozart or even much more childish little things) that it is no big deal and then when they try it back later in life, discover that it is not that easy.  Playing many notes quickly is hard but playing a more empty score with many notes half way between long and short notes is a challenge!


From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 5:24 PM

You don't have to be at the Beethoven Concerto level to prove that simple things are the hardest. Try to play Silent Night and make it sound good.  

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 7:12 PM

When I learned the concerto, one of the most interesting problems, at least at the level I was able to play it, was the difference between the urtext and edited editions.  Most of those editions add a lot of slurs that are not in the urtext.  In addition, some of the bowings in the urtext are awkward.  Beethoven was clearly a decent violinist but not terrific.  My father once spoke of hearing Szymon Goldberg play the concerto in concert after Goldberg's careful study of the manuscript and telling me that hearing that interpretation was a real revelation to him.  I have heard that Zehetmair's version, which I have not heard, is quite faithful to the urtext. 

The other interesting thing that my teacher pointed out to me is that the solo part in the first movement is mostly material from a scale book strung together.    But, how wonderfully Beethoven did it. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 23, 2009 at 4:11 AM

Corwin, how true!


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