Violin Concerto (Sibelius)
Sibelius originally dedicated the concerto to the noted violinist Willy Burmester, who promised to play the concerto in Berlin. For financial reasons, Sibelius decided to premiere it in Helsinki, and since Burmester was unavailable to travel to Finland, Sibelius engaged Victor Nováček (1873-1914), a violin pedagogue of Czech origin, teaching at the Helsinki Institute of Music (now the Sibelius Academy). The initial version of the concerto premiered on 8 February 1904, with Sibelius conducting. Sibelius had barely finished the work in time for the premiere, giving Nováček precious little time to prepare, and it was of such difficulty that it would have sorely tested a player of much greater skill. Given these factors, it was unwise of him to choose Nováček, who was a teacher and not a recognised soloist, and so it is not surprising that the premiere was a disaster. However, Nováček was not the poor player he is sometimes painted. He was the first violinist hired by Martin Wegelius for the Helsinki Institute, and in 1910 he participated in the premiere of Sibelius's string quartet Voces intimae, which received favourable reviews.
Sibelius withheld this version from publication and made substantial revisions. He deleted much material he felt did not work. The new version premiered on 19 October 1905 with Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Court Orchestra. Sibelius was not in attendance. Willy Burmester was again asked to be the soloist, but he was again unavailable, so the performance went ahead without him, the orchestra's leader Karel Halíř stepping into the soloist's shoes. Burmester was so offended that he refused ever to play the concerto, and Sibelius re-dedicated it to the Hungarian "wunderkind" Ferenc von Vecsey, who was aged only 12 at the time. Vecsey championed the Sibelius concerto, first performing it when he was only 13, although he could not adequately cope with the extraordinary technical demands of the work.
The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius's heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a considerably high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part, but Sibelius employed a bass tremolo to add drama in the revision. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.
One noteworthy feature of the work is the way in which an extended cadenza for the soloist takes on the role of the development section in the sonata form first movement. Donald Tovey described the final movement as a "polonaise for polar bears". However, he was not intending to be derogatory, as he went on: "In the easier and looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann I have not met a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto".
Much of the violin writing is purely virtuosic, but even the most showy passages alternate with the melodic. This concerto is generally symphonic in scope, departing completely from the often lighter, "rhythmic" accompaniments of many other concertos. The solo violin and all sections of the orchestra have equal voice in the piece.
Like most concertos, the work is in three movements:
- Allegro moderato in D minor and in 2/2 time
- Adagio di molto in B-flat major and in 4/4 time
- Allegro, ma non tanto in D major and in 3/4 time
The first movement, marked Allegro moderato, opens with a cushion of pianissimo strings pulsating gently. The soloist then enters with a characteristic IV-V-I phrase, in D minor G-A-D. The violin announces the theme and is echoed by clarinet briefly, then continues into developmental material. More low woodwind and timpani accompany the soloist in several runs. Almost cadenza-like arpeggios and double stops and more runs are accompanied by more woodwind restatements of the theme. The strings then enter brazenly for the first time, announcing a second theme. Developmental material leads to a cadenza which then opens into the recapitulation. The 'Allegro Molto Vivace' coda ends with restatements of past themes.
The second movement ('Adagio di Molto') is very lyrical. A short introduction by clarinets and oboes leads into a singing solo part over pizzicato strings. Dissonant accompaniments by the brass dominate the first part of the song-like movement. The middle section has the solo violin playing ascending broken octaves, with the flute as the main voice of the accompaniment, playing descending notes simultaneously.
The third movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto ('Allegro Ma non Tanto', not overly fast) is widely known amongst violinists for its formidable technical difficulty and is widely considered one of the several greatest concerto movements ever written for the instrument. It has been described as "a polonaise for polar bears"  but it also has a warlike quality that evokes a battlefield. It opens with rhythmic percussion and the lower strings for four bars (playing 'eighth note-sixteenth note-sixteenth note' figures), before the violin boldly enters with the first theme on the G string. This first section offers a complete and brilliant display of violin gymnastics with up-bow staccato double-stops and a run with rapid string-crossing, then octaves, that leads into the first tutti. The second theme is taken up by the orchestra and is almost a waltz, and the violin takes up the same theme in variations, with arpeggios and double-stops. Another short section concluding with a run of octaves makes a bridge into a recapitulation of the first theme. Clarinet and low brass introduce the final section. A passage of harmonics in the violin precedes a sardonic passage of chords and slurred double stops. A passage of broken octaves leads to an incredibly heroic few lines of double stops and soaring octaves. A brief orchestral tutti comes before the violin leads things to the finish with a D major scale up, returning down in minor (then repeated). A flourish of ascending slur-separate sixteenth notes, punctuated by a resolute D from the violin and orchestra concludes the concerto.
Jascha Heifetz made the first recording of the Sibelius concerto. Heifetz held it to be one of the great romantic concertos in the violin repertoire. When Sibelius heard Ida Haendel perform it on the radio in Finland, he commented afterwards that she "played it masterfully in every respect. I congratulate myself that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard."
Notable recordings of the concerto include the following:
- Jascha Heifetz with London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
- Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl (RCA Victor Red Seal 63470)
- Ginette Neveu with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Walter Süsskind 1946 (EMI 4 76830 232'34)
- Ida Haendel with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund (Recorded 1975, Emi Classics Encore)
- Ida Haendel with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle (Recorded 1993, Testament)
- Georg Kulenkampff with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (concert recording, 1943, Melodiya)
- Dylana Jenson with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy (Recorded 1981, RCA)
- Salvatore Accardo with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis (Recorded 1979, Philips)
- David Oistrakh with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy (Sony Classical SBK 47659)
- Isaac Stern with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy
- Christian Ferras with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Recorded Oct 29-30, 1964. DG 4692022)
- Gidon Kremer and Riccardo Muti with Philharmonia Orchestra
- Miriam Fried and Okko Kamu with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Finlandia Records)
- Gil Shaham with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 437540)
- Cho-Liang Lin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony)
- Itzhak Perlman with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn
- Leonidas Kavakos with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä (BIS 500) - original and revised versions of the concerto
- Anne-Sophie Mutter and André Previn with Staatskapelle Dresden
- Hilary Hahn with Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (DG 4777346)
- Sergey Khachatryan with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Emmanuel Krivine
- Kyung Wha Chung with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn (Decca 425 080-2)
- Nigel Kennedy with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI 754 5592)
- Camilla Wicks with the Stockholm Symphony conducted by Sixten Ehrling
- Adele Anthony with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arvo Volmer (Canary Classics CC09)
- Alina Pogostkina, The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Leif Segerstam, at the Helsinki Music Centre, Dec 8, 2011
- Sarah Chang, with The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden performed in 2009
- Sibelius Violin Concerto played by Ida Haendel: Introduction by Haendel, Movement 1, Part I, Movement 1, Part II, Movement 2, Movement 3. Accompanied by the Montreal Symphony.
- Sibelius Violin Concerto played by Polina Borisova. Accompanied by the Samara State Philharmonic Orchestra.