Great Violin Concertos

April 16, 2005 at 03:54 AM · Another subject open to debate: which concertos are truly "great" and what makes them so? Zukerman has said that the most perfect concerto is the Mendelssohn, and the other concertos he considers great are Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Berg.

Why is it that, for example, the Tchaikovsky is a beautiful, touching piece, but not as "great"?

Replies (33)

April 16, 2005 at 06:43 AM · Keep in mind that that is only Zukerman's own opinion. Other people may differ, and still be perferctly valid in their judgement. The concerti he has chosen are both popular/beautiful to listen to and musically (architecturally, formally etc) interesting, particularly the Beethoven and Brahms concerti. The Berg is thought to be a great 12 tone work, and also has a rather sad and sentimental story to its creation. The Tchaikovsky is often held to err too much on the side of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity (especially in all the scale passages of the 1st movement) but it is a beautiful work nonetheless.

What might be more interesting is a discussion into what criteria people use to judge the musical value of a composition; that would more than answer your question.


April 16, 2005 at 12:56 PM · Hi,

Carl question is a good one. Jessica, I think that Zukerman based his evaluation on many levels, including the construction of the piece. For example, the Mendelssohn is probably the most perfect concerto. There is not structural flaw, thematically, it is great, and it is probably the best orchestrated concerto in existence. The orchestration is perfect, and there is never ever an issue of balance in this piece.

The others mentioned are also all great from the balance of technical/musical point of view.

The Tchaikovsky is problematical on an architectural level. There are flaws everywhere. There is much redundancy in both the first and last movement. The last movement doesn't really work without the cuts. In the first movement, the second theme is almost an inverted paraphrase of the first theme, leading to a lack of thematic variety. Also the ending is weak and just happens. I think that is why Zukerman doesn't consider it on the level of the greats like the ones that he mentioned.

Now that doesn't take away from the fact that the Tchaikovsky is still one of the big concertos, and a touching and moving piece.


April 16, 2005 at 02:43 PM · Christian,

While your opinion is of course valid, I think what makes a concerto "great" is completely subjective. I think teh Tchaikovsky is one of the most amazing concertos, despite the repetition. I disagree that the ending just happens, I think that it is one of the most exciting moments in all of the concerto literature. But my opinion is just subjective as well. I don't think either of us are "right", I think we have different opinions on what makes something great.

April 16, 2005 at 03:28 PM · Josh,

Without being aware of it, you are introducing your own criteria of musical evaluation while rejecting Christian's. Christian talked about musical quality in terms of the way music is constructed, while you talked about it in terms of the personal reaction it elicits. While it is fine to talk about music like this, it causes problems if you are to decide if music is 'good' or 'bad'. Erudite musicologists would usually consider Webern's music to be good, but for the lay listener it doesn't usually produce any kind of emotional reaction. Does this make it bad music? No, I don't think so. Clearly, considering the emotional reaction of the listener is not quite enough if your are to judge what makes good music good. Also, it would destroy notions of 'high' and 'low' art (can Britney Spears really be considered Beethoven's equal?) which creates more problems of its own...

There is, of course, a functional argument about art (remember that Lisa?). Can Berg and Tchaikovsky be considered both great but incomparable functionally? Would one listen to them both for the same reasons?


April 16, 2005 at 02:56 PM · Form, and structure were really Tchaikovsky's biggest flaws as a composer in general. His symphonies, concerti, and his chamber music all showed many flaws dealing with form. But that didn't stop him from becoming one of the top ten greatest composers of all time. He didn't care about form, or structure, he just wanted to write music that flowed from his soul. I do heavily disagree that Tchaikovsky wrote some of the passages in his concerto just for the sake of having virtuosity, the scale, and double stop passages are so unique to Tchaikovsky, and play an important role of building climaxes, and intensity especially in the first movement. And I also disaggree that the ending of the concerto "just happens", even know it doesn't really wrap up the whole concerto like say the Beethoven or Mendelssohn, I still think it's the greatest ending of all of the great violin concerti.

April 16, 2005 at 04:13 PM · I think its fine for musicologists to anchor a definition of quality in music to structural and technical dimensions. However, to ignore the broad emotional and evocative aspect of music in you consideration of quality and merit flirts with the popular extinction of your music (my music too, so our music!).

There is something undeniably affectively evocative in Tchaikovski's music (esp the VC) in presentation, it moves me. So do the Mendelsohn, and my favorite the Beethoven Concerto. I found these three pieces immediately attractive as a child listening to music in those stollen minutes that shaped a life long affinity for classical music.

I find now as an adult and novice violinist, I really still need to work to appreciate works by say Barber, much post romantic classical music, and most post barok string quartets. But the work is worth it, I appreciate a much wider range of musical works than my simpler - "I know what I like when I hear it" personna. That early, simpler "affective impact dynamic of quality" though is what the broader public brings to their music listening preferences.

So feel intellectually secure in demanding a definition of quality that is anchored in the structure of music, but then don't be surprised when the general public avoids the symphonies and performers who don't consider their desire for affective gratification. Part of a definition of quality must include a component of broader acceptance to sustain.

April 16, 2005 at 04:10 PM · Hi,

I won't disagree. But the question was why Zukerman might not consider the Tchaikovsky as great a concerto as the others. Once again, there is much contradiction in answers. Construction is a quantitative means of measurement while feeling is qualitative. As for the ending of the concerto, there is no coda, no prepared anything, just a run with an abrupt couple of concluding bars. Apparently, though not confirmed, Tchaikovsky admitted having trouble with the ending and decided to just end it. But, maybe to say that it just happens was too strong. Its abruptness though can clearly be heard.


April 16, 2005 at 04:18 PM · I think this is part of my ongoing education (sometimes I call it life). I wondered why Milstein in his auto biography excluded the Tchaikovsky VC from his concerto preferences - though his recording is excellent. He, as I recall gave Beethoven, Bach, Mendelsohn, Pagannini, and Weillnavski (sp), and maybe Bruch, in that order his preference - at least as I recall (my copy of From Russia to the West is immediately unavailable).

At least I'm now motivated to listen to the Tchai. VC, the question is Heifetz or Oistrach. Such a dilema! (Zuckerman's recording of Tchai. VC really isn't particularly good IMHO, hmmm! - education under way???).

April 16, 2005 at 06:02 PM · i tend to rank concertos in my mind on the basis of their individual movements, with overall greatness lying in the concerto with the most consistent melodic appeal in all three movements.

Major fave first movements are easily Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, while my favourite second mvts by far are Mendelssohn and Beethoven and my favourite thirds are Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Bruch. Since Beethoven appears on all three lists, it is the greatest concerto, in my opinion. Logical? No. But when I am debating which CD to open, Beethoven almost always wins. I tend not to open Berg for some reason.

I am convinced that if the three Schubert concert pieces were a single concerto, it would be considered one of the greatest as well.

April 17, 2005 at 05:48 AM · I always feel uncomfortable bringing this up, but I destest the Tchaik. I listen to the first 30 seconds (theme A and theme B) and I've heard it all. I recently listened to Jennifer Koh playing the piece and couldn't help but become bored and distracted by the repetition of the main themes in each movement. Without question they are extremely beautiful and capitvating phrases, however I find the development (or lack their of) to be detrimental to the piece as a whole.

Returning to the orignial question, the greats, to me, are great because of the emotion and feeling they elicit. We always talk about the unique characteristics of music as a form of expression, yet with so many pieces and concertos, we simply label music as "joyous" "brooding" "jubilant". If music is its own language, where do critics find the translator that can turn something as unique and varied into one word as they often do with the over-appreciated "great" concertos.

True greats: Sibelius, Brahms, Walton, Elgar, Khachaturian. While the later three may not be universally accepted as masterworks, they all share similar characteristics. Depth and complexity that create whole worlds that one can easily find themselves lost in. Concertos are unique in that they involve not just a, singular, melody/harmony, but the avalibility of an orchestra to create the highs and lows, the contrast and color that make music special.

When we call something great, there are a host of factors that make that thing great, to us. No two people will experience music in the same way. For some, maybe a beautiful melody is enough to make a masterpiece. On the other hand, for others, the ambience and effect of a piece of music are what make it special. Undeniably, however, music *captivates*. The greats bring us to places that we can not possibly experience any other way.

May 20, 2005 at 09:41 AM · Why is a “graet?” violinconcerto graet? The most played violinconcerto’s are Bruch (1th), Mendelssohn (in e), Brahms, Beethoven, Sibelius, Tjaikovsky, Mozart. Most of them (except for Bruch) are from all round composers well known from their symfonies and chambermusic and accidently for their status as all-round composers also write a violinconcerto, sometimes in a hurry like Beethoven. I think Beethoven violinconcerto is not his best work and his strings quartets and pianosonates are much better. In the programming of amateur- and professional orchestra’s everybody knows the well known all-round composer Beethoven and Brahms, so if you programm the 7th symfonie of Beethoven together with the ouverture Corolian or Leonore 3, the change is big that also Beethoven violinconcerto is planned. The same for Brahms. For example his 4th symfonie together with……yes of course Brahms violinconcerto, well known of the many cd’s of great violinplayers who had played it, and which you had studied with your conservatoriumteacher who had also played Brahms violinconcerto one time with an professional and one time with an amateurorchestra or perhaps even had recorded it, when he or she is a bigger name.

The programm will attract a bigger audience than an unknown violinconcert of an unknown composers, who was not a well known all-round composer, but only had composed for violin. Examples: Nicolo Paganini (6 violinconcerto’s), Hendryk Wieniawski (2), Jeno Hubay (4), Benjamin Godard (2), Dohanyi (2 and some other works), Henri Vieuxtemps (7 violinconcerto’s), Karol Josef Lipinski (4).

Most orchestra-programmers and conductors only knows the well known symfonies, violinconcerto’s, pianoconcerto’s and celloconcerto’s. Also a lot of musicschoolteachers and conservatoryteachers have a poor violinconcertorepertoreknowledge and so their pupils don’t know all these rare violinconcerto’s of violincomposers, you never hear in concerthalls and are hard to get on cd. Only a lunatic amateur and violinconcertocollector knows them and a handful of some other freaks.

Sometimes you have a fanatic programmer or conductors who tries to combine a well known symfonie and a well known ouverture together with an rare and obscure violinconcerto. But these programmers and conductors are exceptions. To get the sheetmusic for violinsoloist and orchestra you must hire them and most of the time they are not cheaper or easy to get than the “great” = “well-known” concerto’s.

So for all this reasons and vicious circles mentioned above the “greatest” violinconcerto’s are only “well-known” violinconcerto’s, but not always the BEST. The Elisabethcompetition finalists (with their poor violinconcertorepertoireknowledge) will play again a lot of these so called “greatest” violinconcerto’s. No big surprises for specialists. The violinconcerto’s of Shostakovitz and Prokofiev are becoming more populair, because these composers had written well known symfonies.

The BEST violinconcerto’s are for above mentioned reasons and vicious circles not always well-known. The 2th of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (recorded by Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlmann) is a good piece, like the 2 violinconcerto’s of Ernst von Dohnanyi (recorded by Vilmos Szabadi, 2th was a world premiere recording) or the second violinconcerto op.11 “Hungarian” of Joseph Joachim (recorded by Aaron Rosand, Rachel Barton, Elmar Olieveira) or Jeno Hubay 3th op.99 (recorded by Aaron Rosand, Vilmos Szabadi) or the 2th of Karol Joseph Lipinksi (recorded by Albrecht Breuninger, 2th price Elisabethcompetition) or the violinconcerto of Carl Nilesen (recorded by Nikolaj Znaider 1th. price Elisabethcompetition). Professional Dutch violinists consider these as good and very good pieces.

I have these violinconcerto’s on cd, but I think I will never hear them in concerthalls in my live or play them as amateur with amateurorchestra’s in my live.

May 20, 2005 at 11:04 AM · I think to the average lay person who attends concerts, concertos like Mendelssohn or Brahams or Sibelious are possibly easiest to listen to. They are beautiful in melody, and have a unity about the song that doesn't leave the listener wondering 'what did I just hear?'. They are also technically challenging so any artist may consider them staples to becomming a great violinist. Because of their beauty, they have become favorites and routinely pull in large audiences.

I like the Tchaikovski myself, but again a first time listener might be lost. Elgar is another good exapmple of a piece that is difficult to hear. Once you have it memorized or have anaylsed the score, it makes perfect sense, but someone like my mother (a non-musician) may not get it at first.

May 22, 2005 at 03:06 PM · Wieniawski actually wrote four concertos, the missing two are unpublished one is in D major and the other in A minor, Just thought I'd share that.

May 22, 2005 at 10:49 PM · Sarah, I believe that virgin listeners and listeners in general receive the Tchaikovsky with greater pleasure and satisfaction than the Sibelius. My experience has been that it can leave many ears puzzled and non-plused.

Indeed, Tchaikovsky's concerto has an unassuming charm because of its structured meldoy on form. Despite the risk of dubious construction, it is simply "musical." This compositional common denominater permits approach by all members of the audience. Recalling an almost Mozart-like delivery, one can esteem it a great work even at face value, and leave the hall feeling fulfilled. This is perhaps this concerto's greatest quality.

Sibelius, while "musical" in its own regard, doesn't pull aural bluffs. Square-sitting melodies and catchy motifs are given over to assymetrical structure and complex development of form. Sibelius' concerto doesn't deliver a nice, neat package of musical genius; it demands the listener come to it and bite. And while I would argue the listener's effort is not necessarily better rewarded by this musical form, it is certainly riveting and uniquely satisfying.

It is my favorite.

It is nearly impossible to explain why a concerto is "great." Perhaps this, more than for any explicit reason, is why we deem them so.


May 22, 2005 at 10:18 PM · >It is nearly impossible to explain why a concerto is "great." Perhaps this, more than for any explicit reason, is why we deem them so.<

I like your comment. While I have some training in harmony and form, I feel unqualified to comment, but that has never stopped me before. I submit that it is *not* about form except in the minds of pure scholars, not that scholars should be dismissed from the discussion entirely-- we need their viewpoint too. With the vast majority of listeners, it is about being taken on an emotional trip, one that provides many beautiful views and experiences, as well as occasional demonstrations of viruosity, which has its own effect of seemingly overcoming the impossible. At the end (which is certainly important to the overall impression) one should be able to say that he/she has really been put through the wringer. Those of us with some training can recognize the restatement and/or re-working of themes and this certainly adds to our pleasure.

I feel that the Tchaik., contrary to what I have read a couple of times here, makes wonderful use of variations on themes. I don't understand the statements to the contrary at all.

Music is about "architecture" and emotion, and I feel that theory has always been "made up" to fit what scholars hear in order to explain what they hear. That's not to say that composers have not paid attention to these forms, but they are secondary to the presentation and development of emotion and other feelings IMO. Music is not about words or rules; it lives on another plane. The Bruch Gm Concerto (and Sheherezade, for another prime example) has long been considered to be a cliche by the intelligencia, and yet these pieces continue to delight millions of people. That must count for a great deal. Pieces like this stimulate a great variety of deep feelings in many people, and on that point alone, I think the attribute of greatness can be awarded.

Respectfully Submitted,

Scott H.

May 24, 2005 at 03:12 AM · I think that all of the concertos that have been listed thus far are considered "great" by a good deal of people. I like all of the ones that have been mentioned, with my particular favorites being the Beethoven, Sibelius, Brahms, Berg, and Tchaikovsky.

I think that we should separate the great orchestrated concertos, the great structural concertos, the great thematic concertos, the great violinistic concertos, etc., at least if we really want to debate it. I agree that the Tchaikovsky is structurally weaker than, say, the Beethoven or Brahms. However, it doesn't mean I like it any less. Also, the development of the composer is important- some may say the Beethoven is too thinly orchestrated and too long and melodic, but it works when you look at what he was writing at that time and what his influences are (much of which would be Viotti's concertos). I think all of the well-known concertos could be considered great for different reasons. Otherwise, why would they still be in our repertoire?

May 24, 2005 at 06:32 AM · Offertorium is a concert I have listened to many times. I prefer it to Brahms by far, I know that it´s like comparing apples to oranges but you can say that apples taste better then Oranges.

Ligeti Violin Concerto is very original too.

July 10, 2005 at 01:17 PM · I think that, like so much in music, it is all a personal opinion. I happen to that the Berg is a rather tiresome concerto. I like it, but not not to the extent that I could listen to it over and over again like the Mendlesshon or Weiniawski.

By the way, Mendelsshon wrote a Violin Concerto in D Minor when he was younger. It is a horrible work. I guess composers, like performers, must mature.

July 12, 2005 at 01:52 AM · cmon, Mendelssohn's d minor isn't bad! I think it's quite a nice concerto -- obviously nothin compared to the great one but still a fine youthful piece.

anyone here played Mendelssohn's d-minor?

July 12, 2005 at 04:08 AM · Im no music expert or a great violinist, but I happen to think the tchaikovsky concerto is the greatest, and the end just doesnt happen, everytime I listen to the end it still gives me goosebumps, I LOVE that ending. I dont think this concerto is about form and structure but rather feeling, when I listen to this concerto I actually feel the music, so who cares if there's flaws.

July 12, 2005 at 07:13 AM · Mike,

The interesting thing about Mendelssohn, actually, is that his early works (ie: at age 16 or so) showed an extraordinary maturity and really showed a mature and developed style. Mendelssohn, unlike most other composers, did not go through huge stylistic changes due to "maturing". His style evolved to be sure, but his early music is just as sophisticated as is later music.


July 12, 2005 at 01:17 PM · Preston -- in fact, one of the sad things about Mendelsohn is that he felt, probably correctly, that his greatest works -- the Octet and Midsummer Nights Dream -- were composed when he was a teenager. He is an example of a prodigy who did not exactly flame out (this honor goes to St. Saens), but certainly leveled off.

July 12, 2005 at 05:59 PM · I wouldn't say that his d minor concerto was horrible. It is definitely not as wonderful as the 2nd one, but has Mendelssohn's usual quality to it. I have heard good performances of this work, and thought the piece was nice.

July 13, 2005 at 02:20 AM · Mendelssohn is the most perfect concerto?

Can someone please explain why I hear on CDs, the beginning of the third movement in a different place? That little bridge opening, some artists think it's the beginning of the 3rd mvt, others put it on the end of the 2nd mvt. track. If there's disagreement on where that belongs how can Mendelssohn be a structurally perfect concerto?

May 26, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·

There are a couple of people in this thread who aren't quite understanding what's being said about Tchaikovsky.  In terms of composition and musicology it is flawed in academic terms.  The guys saying that it's flawed aren't saying that it isn't compelling or exciting, they're just pointing out in technical terms where there are some problems.  I love the piece but I have to agree with them on those terms.

In my humble opinion the genius of Tchaikovsky is that he's very good at patching up these problems with fixes that are effective in ways that only he could pull off.  I can forgive that it's got big bandaids on it because even though he's just restating the theme in the 3rd movement he does so with the chromatics and it just opens up the theme on a level that I find exhilarating to play and to listen to.  And hey even though the ending of the first movement is kind of abrupt at least it's got a lot of spirit.  The D Eflat C Eflat D that happens when you know the end is coming is very powerful.  At least he's straight-forward about it.  It's all up to the player how well the ending works.  It's like he's saying "well guys, it's coming to an end so JUST BANG IT OUT!". The concerto is a lot of work for the player, and I don't think anyone will disagree with me on that.  It's a lot of pages and I have to say it's annoying to me that a lot of it isn't really standardized.  The whole time learning it I had to wonder "is this ok or should I do the Auer version?  Or the Carl Flesch version?".  I ended up just preparing all the versions for my lesson and letting my teacher decide.

May 26, 2010 at 12:23 PM ·

Suppose we consider Tchaikovsky's definition of music (which is my all-time favorite quote about music, or almost anything else):

"Music is not illusion. It is revelation rather. Its triumphant power is that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else, and the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life."

By Tchaikovsky's definition, which violin concertos, in your opinion, 1) reveal to us beauties we find nowhere else, and 2) are a "perpetual reconcilement" of life (i.e., provide a spiritual meaning in life?)

My votes would include the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, whatever its flaws. I would also include not only the universally considered "great" concertos (Beethoven, Brahms, etc.), but some absolute masterpieces in their own realm, particularly the likes of the Paganini 2nd Concerto, the Goldmark, the Prokofiev 1st and 2nd, and so on. Through the genius of their composers, they each reveal beauties we find nowhere else and provide (at least for me) a perpetual reconcilement of life. Aren't we lucky to have all of them.



May 27, 2010 at 01:33 AM ·

Hear hear, Minjung.  Seems to me the question being adressed is: which is more satisfying, a warm fire or a cool dip in the ocean? 

June 1, 2010 at 01:58 PM ·

I feel that the last two comments are the most to-the-point, by far. To be sure, there are academic standards and those are important, but I believe that subjective impression trumps all, and renders these discussions (this one has been going on five years!) fun, but moot.

I just re-read the whole thread, and one of the branches of it interests me a lot: endings (the discussion about the Tchaikovsky). As a jazz performer (these days), I've come to appreciate the real power of the ending. It is, after all, the final emotional impression we leave with the listeners and it can cap a long emotional roller coaster ride in a way that truly satisfies. I submit that the very greatest VC ending is the Brahms-- if timed sensitively, it is like the ending of a great tragic opera, with the fiddler figuratively dying in the spotlight as the curtain slowly comes down. When I hear a Brahms Concerto performance in which the ending is thrown away, the CD gets thrown away!  :-)

June 1, 2010 at 05:15 PM ·

Several of Bach's concertoes come to mind... many, many of them!

June 1, 2010 at 06:27 PM ·


as in: all three?


July 22, 2010 at 12:46 PM ·

In most cases, I tend to prefer third movements.  First movements I find are often overlong with tediously complex developmental sections, while second movements, while beautiful, frequently give a sense of biding time for the third.  This is particularly the case in the Bruch G minor concerto, which has in my opinion the most beautiful, rich and above all fun to play finale in the entire violin repertoire, while the moderato and adagio are rather forgettable.

I have never played the Tchaikovsky or the Beethoven or the Brahms, but from a listening standpoint, I'd have to say they drag towards the start, and I can't offhand think of a single memorable moment from the Tchaikovsky. 

Of those I have played, the "greatest" I think are those in which all three movements are consistently engaging, fun and stirring- namely, Vivaldi's Summer and Winter, the Bach double concerto, and the Mendelssohn E minor (although Vivaldi's middle movements are perhaps a little dull).

Baroque concertos rarely make it onto lists of the "greatest" violin concertos, possibly because their durations tend to be under twenty minutes rather than the best portion of an hour, or because they frequently pose less difficulty to the soloists than classical, romantic and especially modern works.  I think this is a shame, because before concertos evolved into a test of the performers' and audience's endurance, they were much tauter and often more energetic.

July 22, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

I can do the opposite.

I can tell why Glazunov's first piano concerto in f minor is not a great piano concerto, no matter how terribly beautiful, strong, touching, amazing, furious, emotional (*fill in the list*) the first movement is. I can tell you why almost nobody (not even many pianists) are aware of this ultra-beautiful piano concerto (that Svjatoslav Richter played).

It is because he composed the first movement greatly. And totally messed up when composing the second movement...

July 22, 2010 at 08:55 PM ·

Ehnes on you tube gives a very impressive analysis of the Tschaïkovski with examples played on his violin. I do not think that Zukerman opinion about the work would be shared by his collegues or any famous commentator. The original version is still the best. Tschaïkovski and Debussy  did not care about rules and classical conventions. That is the reason why they are the greatests among composers. I had the opportunity to view a complete analysis of the Pathetic, and the famous Russian conductor demonstrated that many strange passages and dissonance of the  symphony were in fact the beginning of dodecaphonic music.

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