Top 10 violin concerti of all time?

Edited: May 18, 2021, 7:30 AM · If you’re looking for objectivity, you won’t find it here.

I’m a psychologist by profession, a life-long violin music lover, and an amateur violinist. So the following list and the explanations are purely subjective, not the opinion of a professional musician or musical scholar. I probably will change my mind next week, but as of today, here are the top 10 violin concertos of all time (in rank order), and why I think so.

Number 1 – Ludwig van Beethoven, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Opus 61 (1806). The Gentle Giant. A serene piece of music made of the simplest materials but of immense scope and structure. One of the greatest cultural achievements of civilization. Listen particularly for the 5-beat element present almost everywhere in the 1st Movement.

Number 2 – Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 35 (1878). A True blockbuster. This is probably the most popular violin concerto ever written, and with good reason. Written in a burst of happy inspiration, it has been on the best-seller list of audience favorites for over 125 years, and shows no signs of disappearing.

Number 3 – Johannes Brahms, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 77 (1878). Depth and romanticism. The ideal combination of classical form and romanticism from the unique voice of classical music’s most introspective poet. He had to have been in love when he wrote this one.

Number 4 – Niccolo Paganini, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in B minor, Opus 7 (1826). Dramatic, theatrical, virtuosic, and seductive. Italian opera with the violin solo as a kind of super-soprano voice. You can almost see the curtains opening at the opening orchestral introduction. The ultimate combination of operatic aesthetic and spectacular instrumental virtuosity by perhaps one of the greatest virtuosos and underrated composers of all time.

Number 5 – Jean Sibelius, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Opus 47 (1903). Emotional, majestic, and exciting. An audience favorite ever since it was popularized by the great Jascha Heifetz. The rugged nature of the two outer movements is in complete contrast to the exquisite beauty of the slow movement, which has a long melody played only twice.

Number 6 – Felix Mendelssohn, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, Opus 64 (1844). Seamless elegance and heart. The model for what a violin concerto should be. Pure song from beginning to end. It actually sounds as if it was never actually “composed,” but always existed in the atmosphere somewhere, only to be plucked out of the sky by Mendelssohn and written down for others to play.

Number 7 – Bela Bartok, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra #2 (1939). Animalistic fury from the heart of the Eastern European backwoods. This concerto is simultaneously in classical sonata form, a theme and variations, and with all of the inspiration of an improvised fantasy. Its nature is deep and stark, just as the turmoil of the world the composer lived in.

Number 8 – Dmitri Shostakovich, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, #1, Opus 99 (1950's). The darkness of the 20th Century. Unusual in being in 4 movements. Introspective and vibrant. The 3rd Movement, “Passacaglia,” is a theme and variations of almost agonizing intensity.

Number 9 – Edward Elgar, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B Minor, Opus 61 (1910). Victorian pomp and emotional sensitivity all rolled into one. One of those “old-fashioned” romantic-era-style concertos that keeps popping up as timeless. The depth of emotion, genuine sentimentality, regal dignity, and consummate virtuosity inherent is this music is all perfectly combined and direct from the composer’s heart.

Number 10 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Violin Concerto #4 in D Major, K. 218 (1775). Purity, song, and perfection. How can you have a top-10 list and not include Mozart? In fact, how can Mozart possibly have sunk to 10th place? The 3rd and 5th Concertos may be more popular, but to me this one has such sheer beauty, liveliness, and heart, that it never fails to move me.

Any comments or violent criticism?

Replies (34)

May 17, 2021, 5:12 PM · It’s a nice list. You omitted one of my favorites, Prokofiev #2, but I will forgive that because you chose Mozart #4. That is my favorite Mozart violin concerto, not counting Sinfonia Concertante, which is one of the great achievements in western music.
May 17, 2021, 5:15 PM · I might quibble with Paganini 2 above such superb pieces you listed after.
May 17, 2021, 5:19 PM · Yes, the Prokofiev #2 should be in there, but it would expose my mathematical weaknesses (e.g., 11 items in a 10-item list). And I, too, quibble with Paganini, but I really do think it's underrated.
May 17, 2021, 7:26 PM · Greetings,
I agree Sander. A while back a noted soloist on this site starting learning this work and commented that he was actually beginning to like it bette than no1. All those Pags are quite beautiful.
Cheers,
Buri
May 17, 2021, 8:38 PM · Mine would be missing Paganini and Elgar, and probably Shostakovich (which is just my preference more than some canonical argument) and I would add Szymanowski 1, Prokofiev 1 and Schumann in their place.
May 17, 2021, 8:55 PM · No Bruch? And I thinkthe Bach double is up there in the category of masterpieces of western music.
May 18, 2021, 1:57 AM · i would be missing Elgar and Shostakovich and i would add Bruch and Prokofiev 2
May 18, 2021, 2:12 AM · It's a great personal list! However, I'd somehow make room for Berg and Benjamin Britten... .
May 18, 2021, 6:52 AM · Sounds like we need a list of the 1000 top concerti of all time. I like lists like this because my knowledge of different composers of certain eras is very limited.
May 18, 2021, 7:48 AM · I'm glad Christian mentioned Szymanowski 1, a much underrated concerto in my opinion.
May 18, 2021, 8:29 AM · I do love Paganini N°2 more than N°1, but I love all 6...

I won't make my own list, but I would definitely include Prokofiev N°1 and the Goldmark if it was my list. The latter just speaks to my heart in a way no other concerto does. Perhaps even Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps would also make my list, but I have bad taste, I suppose.

I love Mozart N°4 as well.

No need for violence. :) Let's always agree to disagree as needed, in peace. Top ten lists are usually tough to do.

May 18, 2021, 9:45 AM · This is a fine list. But I would take Bruch over Bartok.
Edited: May 18, 2021, 10:46 AM · A list of top 40 might make everyone happy.

Personally, I would prefer a list of 3.

Beethoven

Brahms

Mozart 4

May 18, 2021, 11:47 AM · Nice list, but I would lose Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Bartok and Elgar.
Replacements - Nielsen, Britten, Prokofiev 1 and the Mozart Concertante - it's so good that I have to include it as an honorary violin concerto. Mary Ellen's brief comment says it all. Cheating? Probably, and unrepentant.
I might change to order slightly as well.
Edited: May 18, 2021, 4:13 PM · What would it mean if everyone agreed on all of these? The wonderful thing about the differences in personal preferences is that they reflect the variety of sensitivities to the wide variety of aesthetic subtleties in all of these great works of art. What a wonderful comment on this art form (and on the artists who play the instrument).
Edited: May 18, 2021, 5:03 PM · I think those are all wonderful pieces. Nice to see a number of fine violists represented in that list.

I might add one more, Dvorak, but it's tough to remove anyone.

Can we include the Brahms Double Concerto as a violin concerto? I like that one a lot too.

May 18, 2021, 11:25 PM · Back in 2012, there was this thread:

https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20124/13335/

Edited: May 19, 2021, 3:24 AM · My favourite piece of vinyl in the 70s was Maurice Hasson playing Pag 1 and Prok 2.
May 19, 2021, 5:59 AM · For me personally, I'd take Wieniawski 1, Korngold, Dvorak, and Stravinsky over Paganini 2, Elgar, and Mozart. Perhaps I have a weird taste.
May 19, 2021, 6:56 AM · Gene: Great find on that 2012 discussion thread. It just goes to show that our opinions change over time - sometimes by the day.
May 19, 2021, 8:00 AM · Raymond brings up an interesting distinction: "I like that one a lot."

So, are we compiling lists of our favorites? Guilty pleasures, indulgences, heart-quickening melodies? Or are we ranking concerti by genius structure, content, and architecture? Certainly works like Barber, Korngold, Dvorak could be in the first list...and certainly Wieniawski f-sharp, Brahms double, Viotti 163 in G double flat minor do not belong in the second.

May 19, 2021, 11:58 AM · Mr. Sords,

It is subjective to Mr. Marcus. Were it a scholarly project list, it would likely be a much more conventional-and possibly boring-list with few surprises.

(I would possibly include the great Dvorak on a "serious" list, though, if not the Korngold or Barber. But again, 10 works is limiting and you would have to leave excellent works out. No offense intended, as usual.)

May 19, 2021, 12:30 PM · Indeed, it is intended as a "subjective" list. But I think that when it comes to great works art, there is a middle ground between what is "subjective" and what is "objective." And I do believe that artists such as yourselves are artists (at least in part) by being sensitive to that middle ground.
Good discussions. Thank you.
Edited: May 19, 2021, 12:54 PM · Hi Sander! Loved your list and where you placed the Beethoven Concerto. No need for discord if you expand it to the Top 20 instead. I'd immediately add Prokofiev #1, Mozart #3, Wieniawski #1 and #2, Vieuxtemps #5, Goldmark, Korngold, Viotti 22, and the underrated Conus Concerto.
May 19, 2021, 1:48 PM · We’ve played the Korngold concerto here a few times with different soloists, and many respected colleagues love that piece. I have tried and tried, and it just does nothing for me. Chacun a son gout.
May 19, 2021, 2:36 PM · Great list - obviously a very subjective type of list. For me, I believe Barber's violin concerto deserves a spot on there. It is simply gorgeous and very mature. (And what about that third movement??) But I will not dispute #1 - I think the Beethoven violin concerto is the most well balanced piece of music ever composed. Thanks for sharing!
May 19, 2021, 3:53 PM · Wot, no Glazunov (I prefer it to the Tchaikovsky)?
I think where the Sinfonia Concertante scores so heavily is its slow movement. To find another like that, you have to go to a couple of Beethoven Sonatas (Op 10#3 & Op 12#2).
May 19, 2021, 5:05 PM · Which reminds me.....

Question: Why was Heifetz always in tune?

Answer: Because he played every piece in nothing flat.

May 19, 2021, 6:47 PM · You mean H had that gift that even when he played notes sharp, they were always in tune? I'd love to learn how to do that, I suppose that's the difference between me and Heifetz ...
Sander, don't keep us in suspense, tell us how it's done!
May 19, 2021, 8:53 PM · Greetings,
there is a detailed explanation by Flesch in his ARt of Violin about how playing in tune is a theoretical impossibility. Other research has shown that violinists hit a relatively small percentage of notes in tune and that definitely included Heifetz. What separated Heifetz from others was the incredible speed with which he adjusted notes. Oistrakh actually played quite off the mark as he got older but this only served to illuminate another interesting aspect of intonation. That is, Oistrakhs unique ability to get the most beautiful ringing sound out of the violin (tonus) seemed to illustrate the point that the human mind can be so overwhelmed and beguiled by sheer beauty of sound it becomes hyper tolerant of small deviations in intonation.
Cheers,
Burp
May 20, 2021, 11:37 AM · Hello again Sander. As a professional psychologist, you may want to explore in another post why some great works of music speak to some and not to others. For example, I'm just not moved by violin concertos by Schumann, Dvorak, and Glazunov. And I truly wished I loved the Berg concerto, but I don't. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
May 20, 2021, 12:02 PM · Perhaps there is also a psychological explanation for this, but it may be simply my subjectivity....why do twentieth century violin concertos capture the era’s pain and regrets better than the same century’s piano concertos?
Edited: May 20, 2021, 1:27 PM · That's a good question. I'm not sure but Schoenberg's violin and piano concertos both sound very introspective to my ears, the latter seemingly more accessible and easier to follow for me from start to finish.
May 20, 2021, 2:17 PM · Being a psychologist does not necessarily provide complete insight into individual subtleties, especially in the huge complexities and sensitivities involved in art forms with the emotional depth of the music we routinely talk about.

Let me put it this way - we put people into categories. We do that in psychology, but also in medicine, economics, religion, occupations, politics, and many many other ways.

But when it comes to any individual, the "categories" we put a person in is only half the story. The other half is that there is no such thing as a "standard" human being. We are each unique individuals with our own subjective responses - one of a kind. There is and will only be one you, one me, and one everybody else.

So I'm not so sure that a discipline such as mine (or any other) has the last word on any individual's particular artistic sensitivity or subjective experience in the realm of musical aesthetics, mentality, or even physiology. It's one of the things that makes this particular art form very, very, very special.

Every single one of the concerti mentioned in this entire discussion thread is unique, special, and a true work of art, each in it's own way. And given the uniqueness of each performer and listener means that each piece may very well be played, heard, understood, and appreciated in a unique way.

Decades ago, I was in the audience in Chicago when David Oistrakh played the Prokofiev 1st Concerto. The outer two movements were incredible. But he totally botched that second, very difficult, movement. The playing was sloppy, out of tune, and a mess. When he came out for an encore, he replayed that second movement, this time with a technical brilliance, emotional excitement, and inner fire that brought the house down. Many passages still ring in my inner ear. It was a one-of-a-kind experience.

That performance alone would cause me to put that concerto on the top of my top-10 list were I to re-do it.

So, my hat is off to all who play this great instrument, and to all composers who have attempted the monumental challenge of writing a violin concerto.


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