How come so few of the stars really play the most demanding pieces?

December 15, 2011 at 04:03 AM · I remember a fairly recent interview with Leoninad Kavakos where he claimed that Offertorium was the hardest piece he ever learned. A few years earlier he said that Bartok 2 was the hardest.

There are pieces that are significantly harder then these. Compositions that are really great but only Kavakos and maybe 2-3 other people in the world are capably of playing them well live.

Perlman and Zukerman are other examples of violinists that propably could have played much harder pieces if they wanted too.

A bit sad I think since they might be the greatest violinists that are still active.

Some of the really demanding works new works are tonal and "retro" so even violinists that dislike atonal pieces may enjoy playing them.

Perlman seems to be the ideal violinist if you want to write an extremely demanding "neoromantic concerto" with a modern touch.

Hilary Hahn is a good example of a violinist that moved a away a bit from the standardrepertoire and that´s her best careermove yet I think.

Same with Mutter and even more Kremer, playing new works instead of old warhorses seems to be their thing.

Replies (26)

December 15, 2011 at 05:21 AM · No soloist can survive in a vacuum. Concert promoters and record companies upon whom the soloist depends for engagements can "call the tune". These shrewd operators know what they can sell to the public. Another thread noted that in NYC it was hailed as an adventurous breakthrough to have played the WW2 era Bartok Concero for Orchestra. The "museum culture" mould of the classical tradition is a difficult one to break. Whilst Berg's concerto might put a few bums on seats I don't think Schoenberg's gets the Impresarios too excited. Depressing, innit !!!!

December 15, 2011 at 05:22 AM · At that caliber of playing, "difficulty" does not necessarily mean technical difficulty. Leonidas Kavakos has the technique to play everything under the sun if he wants to, but what he might consider to be more difficult than another thing has more to do with personal standards, musical goals that he may have or some feeling or style that he wants to emphasize. For instance, the ways that Kavakos and Mutter play the Beethoven violin concerto are greatly admired in the violin community. Is the Beethoven concerto itself the most technically difficult piece to play? Not really (I'm not saying it isn't hard, just that there are more technical pieces out there), but to pull it off with that level of sublime grace and expertise is beyond the capability of a vast quantity of players who have learned it. I hope I haven't missed your point, I just think that if someone has the kind of technique that Hilary Hahn has for instance, they might consider something difficult that a lot of people don't think is so hard, and something really technical to be easy because it might not require the same amount of musical depth.

December 15, 2011 at 05:54 AM · Just one long, slow, note can seem impossible if a player gets nervous, e.g. the sustained long "G" for the fourth of the first violins in the Sibelius "Valse Triste".

As Michael observes, difficulty is relative and largely "in the mind".

December 15, 2011 at 08:47 AM · Since living in a music school and being surrounded by so many amazing musicians, I have formed the opinion that pieces that are more technically demanding may not be as emotionally demanding as others. Sometimes the emotion is the thing that drives how hard a piece actually is - someone who is great technically might be able to whizz through Paganini in no time and make a point of it, but what about pieces like Schindler's List, or Meditation, or even concertos like the Tchaik violin concerto and so on. Some of these take so much more musicality and skill in that way that they can be hard to pull off perfectly. I think that's what makes music music. :-)

December 15, 2011 at 12:41 PM · It may be the most demanding pieces are not liked as much, for instance my favourite Bartok piano concerto is the 2nd, which also happens to be the easiest.

A friend, a professor at a college, said of something I had written that it was "deceptively difficult" - intonation needed to be good due to all the unison playing and working with piano part was difficult.

This may mean that some of the easier works may not actually be that much easier in every sense of the word.

December 15, 2011 at 01:10 PM · Seems like the climate for contemporary classical music is pretty terrible right now.

Can imagine that playing Schoenberg,Higdon,Ives and now premiere encores, most of them by unknown composers, must seem like an extreme career move for Hilary Hahn.

Perhaps she couldnt make this career move earlier even if she wanted too? Playing and recording almost nothing but the old warhorses for 10 years might have been something she had to do to become a violinstar,or?

December 15, 2011 at 01:30 PM · I am reminded of the story of Horowitz at a concert where a young lion of the keyboard was romping through some fiendishly difficult pieces. Horowitz turned to his companion and remarked, "Very impressive, but can he play Scarlatti?"

December 15, 2011 at 02:03 PM · A few weeks ago we gave the first performance of a new concerto for the double bass, a 25-minute work composed by our conductor. It's well up among the most difficult pieces any of us had ever played (and that included the soloist), but, despite its post-modernity, it was well received by the audience, for many of whom it was the first time they had heard the true beauty of tone that a double bass can produce. The concerto also had a good write-up by a media music critic. However, we had been careful to "sugar" the programme pill with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian" Overture, Prelude and Romance from Shostakovich's "The Gadfly", and Haydn's Symphony Nr. 103 to finish the evening.

Tellingly, the soloist, David Heyes, who has had numerous pieces written for him, was taken by this new concerto by Jonathan Palmer and is keeping it in his repertoire.

December 15, 2011 at 04:08 PM · Trevor: Would love to hear that piece.

I am constantly looking for new pieces to check out.

I am not a huge fan of atonal works though but I really like some Avantgarde like Penderecki´s concertos for instance.

December 15, 2011 at 04:10 PM · "Perhaps she couldnt make this career move earlier even if she wanted too? Playing and recording almost nothing but the old warhorses for 10 years might have been something she had to do to become a violinstar,or?"

Although I understand what you are saying Andreas I think it is a negative interpretation of the situation. My interpretation would be that she has built up trust with her audience who will trust her taste when she plays contemporary music. In the same way an audience would be comfortable with an unknown solist if they were chosen by a respected composer or conductor.

If you went to a restaurant you didn't know you would probably not try anything way out. But if you trusted the chef because you went there regularly you may well make more advernturous choices.

December 15, 2011 at 04:32 PM · Hilary and the others that play these impossible concertos (which I think make better warm-up pieces than performance pieces for me) may make you say "Wow!" when you hear or watch them, but if you're like me, you can only listen to something like that for so long before turning on some rock or something else. I prefer artists like David Garrett, Escala, Bond, Apocalyptica, and the Vitamin String Quartet. They don't play the hardest music around-- they play easier stuff better than you can AND make it enjoyable at the same time by throwing it into a rock concert, and that's what makes them popular.

December 15, 2011 at 07:05 PM ·

December 15, 2011 at 07:11 PM · I often wish there were more of these challenging contemporary pieces played at concerts among the old familiar ones, and I am grateful to the artists who bring them to us. Only wish I had the technique. What do we mean by difficult, though? It's not for nothing that Mozart has been called "the giant killer". I liked Trevor's story about Horowitz, and I agree wholeheartedly with the points made by Michael, Eloise and Ian.

December 16, 2011 at 11:51 AM · Peter: I agree about what you say. This is why I really like violinists like for instance Gidon Kremer. It seems like he is always looking for new pieces that will push his abilities to the max. I think he has inspired many of the younger violinists to premiere new works.

How many works have Perlman and Kavakos premiered?

December 16, 2011 at 02:24 PM · I would love to hear some of the works by very good composers of the past that do not qualify as war horses. Hindemith wrote some good stuff for unaccompanied violin and for violin and piano. I have never heard anyone play any of it in a recital, and there are almost no recordings of it. I wish Hahn and people like her would use the audience trust they have gained to play and record Hindemith, which we really need, rather than more concerts and recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc., which we do not need.

December 16, 2011 at 03:58 PM · Talking of Hindemith, I went to a midday concert today by Quatuor Leonis where they played Hindemith Quartet No.4. I really enjoyed it and wondered why Hindemith's quartets are not more played. Following PH was Different Trains by Steve Reich - a work that's getting played quite a lot around here.

December 16, 2011 at 09:33 PM · Some players are skilled at building up relationships with living composers, and wonderful pieces can result. Rostropovich is somebody who comes to mind, if you excuse the diversion to the bass clef.

Others are able to find a connection with a dead composer, and an abandoned work, which I feel is what happened with Hilary Hahn and Schoenberg. She didn't set out on a mission to market serialism to the masses, she jut found a piece which challenged (even) her on both musical and technical levels.

That some players don't (or haven't yet) found such a connection doesn't invalidate their playing familiar repertoire. In any case that's a definition which you can't pin down...for example, the Stravinsky violin concerto was little-known twenty years ago in comparison with today.

Some of this is down to prominent players releasing recordings. However, I suspect it's more down to subsequent generations of teachers and learners, unintentionally working collectively as they sift through various 'obscure' pieces, allowing some gems to rise to the surface. What may have at one time seemed to be insurmountable technical challenges are chewed over and digested to the point that they no longer pose the same challenge.

December 20, 2011 at 08:23 AM · "Some players are skilled at building up relationships with living composers, and wonderful pieces can result."

True, only a few of the best violinists seem very interetested in working with composers though.

I hope more violinists will be inspired by Hahn´s encore contest. Extremely rare that unknown composers get this opportunity.

December 20, 2011 at 12:12 PM · Andreas: "True, only a few of the best violinists seem very interetested in working with composers though."

Most, if not all of the "best" violinists today have been involved with new works written for them.

Who do you have in mind that doesn't? I am sure that it are a few, but absolutely not most of them.

And the heading for this topic is not good, contempoary is NOT equal to "most demanding".

December 21, 2011 at 08:07 AM · "Most, if not all of the "best" violinists today have been involved with new works written for them.

Who do you have in mind that doesn't? I am sure that it are a few, but absolutely not most of them."

I mentioned Zukerman, Perlman and Kavakos. What pieces have they premiered?

December 21, 2011 at 01:00 PM · Zukerman - Knussen

Perlman - Earl Kim

Kavakos - Golijov

There is of course others as well.

December 21, 2011 at 07:40 PM · Mattias: I listened to Kim´s and Knussen´s concertos today. They are interesting but not great. Kim´s is the best.

December 22, 2011 at 04:20 AM · Yeah, I was a bit dissapointed of the Knussen as well :)

December 23, 2011 at 04:14 PM · Golijov´s concerto hasn´t been premiered yet or am I wrong?

I am looking forward for sure, the Boulez concerto with Mutter as well.

I think it will be a masterpiece.

December 24, 2011 at 07:09 PM · I like these comments! If someone says I play well,

well it is my job, after all! If they find my playing beautiful (and say so,) I'm over the moon!

To me, trying to play Paganini is a waste of time: like icing sugar with the price-tag of caviar!! I should rather spend the time on the Brahms or Bartok Concertos where the effort required is repaid a thousand fold.

December 25, 2011 at 08:46 AM · "To me, trying to play Paganini is a waste of time: like icing sugar with the price-tag of caviar!! I should rather spend the time on the Brahms or Bartok Concertos where the effort required is repaid a thousand fold."

I agree, Paganini is not a very interesting composer. Many unknown compositions for the violin are a thousand times more musically interesting.

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