Week 18 – Beethoven’s Blog

Posted on August, 12th 2021

Beethoven Violin Concerto Op. 61 in D Major

Vivaldi wrote 230.

Tartini 135

JS Bach wrote 2,

Nardini 4

Mozart 5

and Louis Spohr wrote 18.

Beethoven only wrote one but what a violin concerto it is.

Norwalk High School was a beautiful old Georgian building and it had the best auditorium in town, well, the only auditorium in town. So I, a young teenage boy and my best friend David sneaked into that auditorium to hear the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra play one of their concerts. Of course fearing the long arm of the law we sat and cowered in the last row of the balcony. We figured it might be harder to locate us there. This was part of my first exposure to the Beethoven violin concerto. Little known to me the soloist was one of the most famous violinists in the world, the great Hungarian Josef Szigeti. Actually his star was fading. His intonation was shaky and his tone less pure. He had been known for decades for his insightful interpretations of the classics. I didn’t know all of this then, it’s something I’ve learned during the course of my career as a musician. Nonetheless, I was captured that night by the Beethoven Violin Concerto Op. 61 in D Major. To this day that piece resonates in me stronger than any other. It is not only my favorite violin concerto but my favorite concerto of any kind. Interestingly not everyone is taken by this piece of music. I’ve known some wonderful violinists in my time who thought that the concerto didn’t hold much for them. That it was merely a collection of scales and arpeggios and almost exercise-like features. They wondered where were the gutsy emotional melodies that you find in Brahms or Tchaikovsky. Where were the technical fireworks? Or where was the elegance and refinement of Mozart concertos.  The critics of Beethoven’s day didn’t like the piece so much or at least they were lukewarm to it for all the reasons listed above. However the public really liked it and was quite enthusiastic. The public seemed to have a greater connection and understanding with the piece than the music critics did. A situation that unfortunately continues to this day.

While at Indiana University I heard KW play this piece on her recital. She studied with the wonderful Joseph King called. Her performance was flawless and inspired and unforgettable. And then over the years I was so fortunate to be able to play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with world famous violinists playing the Beethoven concerto with us. I’ve always been so touched by this piece and especially by the second movement, the slow movement. There is a something about it that is so noble and pure that shows Beethoven’s heart. It contains a march- like rhythm in 4/4 time in G major, a very beautiful and settled key. The violin seems to play obbligato lines or interjections above the orchestra. Simple and singing. You’ll hear in the first version below by Fritz Kreisler at 27:45 a beautiful statement in the violin that never fails to bring me to tears. To use the word again it is so noble and  unembarrassed showing Beethoven’s love of existence, his soul. I also love the Fritz Kreisler cadenzas in the first and third movements. Violinists through history have written their own cadenzas to the concerto since Beethoven didn’t leave us any. I’ve always just adored Fritz Kreisler’s above them all. The great contemporary violinist Gidon Kremer commissioned the contemporary composer Alfred Schnittke to write a cadenza  which I’ll include here. You decide if you like it. (BTW, I like the Schnittke.)

Please enjoy these different versions which I’ve included below. I truly hope you will come to love this concerto as much as I do. I think it’s one of the most important pieces in all of music.

Here is the famous 1926 recording by Fritz Kreisler with hissown cadenzas. This YouTube was taken from the 78rpm discs, thus the scratchy quality.

Jascha Heifitz’s 1950 recording of the concerto with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is legendary.  https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?

The story goes that Pinchas Zuckerman filled in at the last moment for an ill soloist. This was a live concert recording. It’s one of my favorites. I just love his playing.

Here’s an example of thoroughly modern violin playing. Absolutely perfect. Every note is in place, perfectly in tune, etc. but some would say without some of the personal music making and charm of the older nerations. Hilliary Hahn in this brilliant performance.

​And finally here’s the modern cadenza by Schnittke I mentioned earlier. It’s a 2:45 on this recording.