The Big Six: a stream-of-consciousness live blog of the famousest violin concerti

So, uh, I’ve got free time now. And with that free time comes wild schemes with which to fill the stretches that were previously occupied with relationshipy things, house-related business, and general non-loneliness. What better way to spend a random Tuesday evening than sitting in a coffee shop and listening to three hours of violin concerti? Going to the gym and focusing on personal development? I mean, yeah, but no. Here we go. Six concertos. Six classic violinists. 1/2 of six hours.

6:40 pm – BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D major
Nathan Milstein, violin
William Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony

Gotta start off with a bang, and there is hardly a better bang than the introduction of the Brahms Violin Concerto, about as great a 3 minutes as you’ll find in music. God dammit that march rhythm is crispy. Milstein comes in hard, like a kamikaze pilot who doesn’t actually die but instead lives to play the remainder of the Brahms Violin Concerto. And then he’s in Sweet Milstein mode at the drop of a hat – so smooth and chill, and even at this quick tempo he still makes it hot-stone-massage-level relaxing. Nobody can do the unison descending line in the woodwinds bit quite like Brahms. Just one of his many signatures, along with the part about everything being essentially perfect. Furious double stops from Nate the Great. Tidy orchestral playing from the PSO. Steinberg has become an under-the-radar favorite of mine for exactly this type of thing: no frills, no outsized bullshit, just idiomatic and controlled performances in all kinds of repertoire. Effortless octaves from Milstein. That shit is TOO easy. PIZZICATO RAGE!!!!!!!11 If I could play any other instrument, it would probably be cello, but if I were to listen to enough downbow double stops, the violin might sneak away with that coveted (just kidding, I meant useless) distinction. I guess tonight’s probably going to be the night for that, actually. Here come more furious double stops! What we need here is a cadenza…oh look. Joachim is rolling over in his grave, though he would be proud of those mean double stops. I can’t get enough, y’all, I can’t get enough. A little awkward transition to get back for the coda, but the tone is so sweet that I don’t really care. Such a Brahms ending to that movement.

“Someday composers are going to realize how great a melody would sound if the oboe played it. And when they do, they will do it all the fucking time.” That’s a quote from a music critic in the late 18th-century who doesn’t actually exist. But that sound you hear is every oboist currently alive knowing that they’ll have to play this melody on an audition at some point. Milstein possesses overwhelming musicality and a frighteningly acute sense of flow and timing. It seems like every little push, every miniscule bit of rubato is right on the money. How the fuck does he do that? Ah, those high notes are so choice, deliberately chosen words to invoke the 1964 Ferrari GT California that Cameron’s dad has in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. They’re like crystals. There’s another one…wow.

I of course can’t hear this music without thinking of There Will Be Blood now, which would be shitty if it wasn’t so awesome. I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE! I almost typed “I drink your Milstein” in there by accident, which would have been a little uncomfortable for the Milstein Estate I imagine. Such a great theme; bouncy, vibrant, powerful. Much like myself…? Crafty little glissandi you magnificent bastard. Hey, more double stops, and hey, they’re awesome. Such a well-written coda, vaguely reminiscent of the Turkish band bit of Beethoven 9 in its playfulness, but then it’s right back to Brahms business. That thing I mentioned earlier about trademarks can also include the “winding down” idea that he employs here (and the Third Symphony and the Haydn Variations and…). What a classy piece.

7:20 pm – MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E minor
Jascha Heifetz, violin
Charles Munch/Boston Symphony

Greatest melody ever written? It’s in the discussion. This is an unbelievably aggressive tempo, but I’ve heard that Heifetz is a pretty good technician when it comes to playing the violin. God, Munch has this band playing like gods. As the accompaniment to a concerto. From the early part of the Romantic period. Good for him, man. Wanna know something crazy? I think the second theme of this movement might be in that greatest melody ever discussion, too. Must have been nice to have been Felix Mendelssohn. You know, Heifetz does get a bit of a bad rap on the intangible qualities front. He’s got soul, it just hides beneath a layer of furious killing machine so it gets obscured a bit, a lot like another soloist we’ll hear from in a bit, and by a bit I mean well over an hour. But especially in the lower registers, Heifetz sounds like a fucking logging company’s worth of manly – so much woodsiness in the tone. Once again, the BSO sound like a freight train, but not a runaway one, rather one that’s intentionally mowing everything in its path down to nothingness. I clearly need to bust out whatever Munch/BSO stuff I have at the house. The relentless intensity of the orchestra is starting to make me uncomfortable. It isn’t that Heifetz isn’t awesome, but virtually any very skilled violinist would sound like the business end of a Faustian bargain with this behind them.

This is where Heifetz suffers a bit in comparison to someone like Milstein, who simply has an extra reserve of sugary wonderfulness that Heifetz ALMOST matches with his high fructose corn syrup sound, but it’s just not the same. I guess I’m saying Milstein is the Mexican soda of violinists. It’s important to note that a small boy just walked in wearing camo shorts, an olive green shirt to match, and the beginnings of a terrifying mullet. And he just hugged his mother’s ass, like, really hard. Anyway, this is the highlight of the concerto for me, the double stops with the rolling 16ths, easily one of the most inspired bits of music that old Felix ever penned. It’s quite unlike anything that came before it. Brilliant stuff.

Actually, you know what else is brilliant? This little transition into the movement proper of the finale. Such a great idea. And we’re off! If I were going to make a movie about miniature ponies racing each other, this would be the music. Holy shit, somebody write that down, that’s a great idea. Still tons of energy from the band, and this is about as perfect a vehicle for Heifetz as you’ll find. Jesus, that passagework has no right to be that even and taut and still flow. Considering its length, Mendelssohn VC may actually be the pound-for-pound champion of these works. So much kick ass shit in a short amount of time.

7:45 pm – BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D major
Henryk Szeryng, violin
Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Wow, is it possible that Brahms may have heard any of Beethoven’s music? Shit just got real when things shifted into the minor. Being a timpanist on anything by Beethoven has got to be fun, not because they’re amazing parts to play or anything, but they’re just so damned important. Szeryng is about as reasonable a hybrid between the previous two soloists as we can probably find – not quite as technically insane as Heifetz and not quite as musically enriched as Milstein, but a healthy mix and probably at the top of the heap when it comes to raw power. Szeryng is the Rostropovich of the violin based on what I just wrote then and would therefore have a legitimate claim to the “greatest ever” title. A bit awkward on the trills, but then again my hand would have seized up like an engine without oil after 4 seconds of that. As great as late Beethoven is, if I had a gun to my head I think I would say that early-transitioning-into-middle period was my favorite. At least I would if I could say it before passing out in a pool of my own vomit and tears. This bit is another “I miss Milstein” section where the effortless sweet tone that he gets would be better suited, but to his credit Szeryng is keeping the momentum going pretty well, which is kinda hard with that extended triplet idea. It’s obvious Beethoven was an orchestral dude at heart, because as good as the solo part it, the tuttis on this piece (and the piano concerti) are cool as all hell. One of my musical pet peeves is when the balance between soloist and orchestra is skewed so heavily in favor of the soloist that passagework covers up the actually more important shit going on “behind” it. This is unfortunately one of those recordings. But at least the tuttis are miked with roughly equal amounts of balls, and hey here’s another one, and hey again it’s also the baddest ass one of the entire work. Cadenza time. That’s how you start a motherfucking cadenza: downbow double stops wielded like a hammer of Thor that also shoots missiles and ninja stars. On a list of really cool cadenzas…this one is. Not sure why I phrased that like Yoda. Seriously, he’s playing the shit out of this. Glad I wasn’t in the band – I would have missed coming back in for those pizzicati because my jaw would still be on the floor in front of me. On second thought, I wish I was good enough at music to be in the Concertgebouw. Anyway.

This is why early-to-mid Beethoven is such a winner for me: his slow movements are achingly gorgeous (first time I ever cried as a performer was during the second movement of Beethoven PC3). Szeryng’s tone is just too aggressive for this music in my opinion. This should be like angels floating on Tempur-pedic clouds and pissing marshmallow cream, which is what passes for tenderness in my world. You can hardly hear the pizzicato strings behind the cavernous wall of sound coming out of Szeryng. Who thought that was a good idea? I never hear that transition to the finale coming and I don’t know why.

It should be noted early on that this movement in the wrong hands can be one of the dumbest things ever. So far so good, especially the tutti. Crisp articulation goes a long way. It can’t get heavy at all, or it will bog down like the last 45 minutes of Avatar or the teenage years of raising a child. Szeryng is doing his part, too – nice and light while still maintaining that unfathomable power. You know, there are some repetitive forms out there, from sonata to passacaglia, but the rondo is a particularly devilish bastard. Remember what I said about the timpani earlier? It’s still true. Horn fifths. What fun. And what a term. That’s how you know composers went to the well on something just a shade too much. It’s starting to get a little heavy. Maybe we should have another cadenza! I have a feeling that if I were good enough at violin to play any of these and I were writing my own cadenzas, I would abuse double stops the way a Broadway pianist would abuse those glitzy runs all the way up and down the piano. I’ll just stick to admiring them. As opposed to becoming a world-class violinist I mean. Big finish…just bring in a little syncopation and call it a day.

8:31 pm – TSCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D major
Zino Francescatti, violin
Artur Rodzinski/New York Philharmonic

How much better would my life be if I were named Zino? Francescatti (fuck what a cool name), more than any other great violinist I can think of, sounds like the guy who lives in a Manhattan highrise playing violin out his open window on a summer night at his absolute apex. It’s occasionally too affected and sometimes the tone wanders a bit, but it just sounds like he’s incredibly into what he’s doing. Of all the orchestral tuttis that these six works have as a group, I’m fairly certain that this one is the best. The triplets, the whistlable theme, the energetic bounce – it sounds like the kind of music you’d see in an IMAX movie that’s nothing but flyovers of Tuscany and the Rhine and shit. This bit with the melodic double stops clearly bears the influence of the Mendelssohn. It’s almost as if great composers absorb material from other great composers. Just a little theory I’m working on that no one else has ever thought of. When did high-waisted shorts become popular with the ladies again? Between these hipster chicks and this recording, I’m about to give up any metal I own for the war effort and start drinking freeze-dried coffee out of a bowl. And buy some war bonds. And contemplate warning Eisenhower and Churchill that overthrowing a democratically-elected Iranian government sounds good right this second but it might have long-term negative consequences. There’s some hiccups here and there, but dammit all does Zino play with a ginormous set of stones, man. Every gesture is balls to the wall. Yet another really well written coda, especially when the violins pick up the solo line. Jesus, they’re moving at warp speed. Whoa. Definitely warrants the applause.

Canzonetta. Beautiful term. And this melody is also participating in that greatest melody ever competition that isn’t actually happening. So perfect. Tschaikovsky may have been on to something as a melodist. Some really moving playing by Zino in this movement. Were he that dude in the highrise from the previous paragraph, all the animals in the city would be outside completely entranced by now. Those were simpler times, when our animals loved Tschaikovsky. Damn you, technology. Such a nice little chorale vibe to the end of this movement. Quoth that guy from that movie: on my signal, unleash hell…

Those pizzicati were awesome. Zino plucks the strings so hard it makes me wonder if he has nothing but calluses where fingerprints should be, thereby making him THE PERFECT KILLER! Oh shit, there was an amazing groove there for like 2 seconds, like a cosmic black hole that closed up quickly. I need to watch Event Horizon again. I love that movie. You know, Tschakovsky’s finales don’t always live up to the rest of their respective pieces in my opinion. Best example is the 4th Symphony, which is as great as music can be until the finale, at which point it becomes a little silly compared to the awesomeness that preceded it. But I actually think this one stands up pretty well, even the descending scale theme that probably SHOULD seem trite and stupid but just isn’t. Although that little woodwind exchange is kinda dumb. But we’re back! Nothing to see back there! And that was an awesome transition back into the theme. Zino!

9:05 pm – BARBER: Violin Concerto
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony

Ahhhhhhh…what a beautiful piece. I feel like Samuel Barber’s reputation is generally on the upswing, but I feel like he should still be more popular than he is. I mean, this is ludicrously well-written music, rich yet delicate, intense yet completely at peace. I’ve never been a huge fan of Perlman for reasons I neither understand nor would attempt to try to other than to say that I’m just a shitty hater, but he sounds like the United States deficit worth of dollars on this. Remember when I said that I was fairly certain that the tutti from the first movement of Tschaikovsky was the best. Uh…I regret saying that. Holy shit. Barber can make even the flute sound cool. I mean, THAT’S when you know they’ve got the gift. I seriously need to reconsider my position on Itzhak Perlman. Especially because he recorded an album with Oscar Peterson that almost by definition has to be terrible but is still awesome because of the sheer musicianship of the parties involved. Brace yourselves, here comes quite possibly the most heart-wrenchingly gorgeous 8 minutes of art that mankind has ever produced.

I’m a heterosexual white male who turns 33 years old in one week, and I just got teary-eyed and weepy in a coffee shop in Kansas City, Missouri. The power of music. In fairness, I did recently get my heart broken by a former oboist, so perhaps that theme is hitting too close to home. God damn you, oboe, you are wonderful. Nope, turns out it’s the theme itself, because no oboes were involved this time, and I still got misty. I mean, I would stab a dandy hobo in the neck to have written something even a hundredth as beautiful as this. Oh God, here comes the climax. I hope no one hears me sobbing like a bitch over here. Timpani. Yes. Holy fucking shit is this good. That’s how I describe rapture: holy fucking shit. Presumably if the Book of Revelation is true and rapture with a capital R is coming, I’ll say the same thing when Jesus appears. I hope he doesn’t mind. It’s actually a compliment in Erikese. Wow Samuel Barber. Wow.

And then the most bizarre finale possible, a moto perpetuo in a mixed meter that bears essentially no resemblance to the previous two movements. It’s exciting as hell though. But it’s so quick. It’s already over! Please don’t take that quote out of context.

9:28 pm – SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D minor
David Oistrakh, violin
Nils-Eric Fougstedt/Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

We’ve saved the best for last. My favorite concerto. My favorite violinist. By the way, we is me. There’s no committee. Oistrakh is not of this planet, but rather a member of a super species of hyper-jowled geniuses whose abilities dwarf those of mere human beings. Someone who possesses the Godless brute efficiency and technical wizardry of a robot should not also be blessed with this much pathos. As dramatic and profoundly lonely as this movement is, the second theme is such an entertaining counter to that. It seems so out of place and yet it simply has to be there. Double stops. Theme of the night, man. Such depth of tone on the low notes…how is that fair? Good God. Hey, remember when I said I regretted that comment about the tutti in the Tschaikovsky being the best, thereby intimating that the Barber might actually be better. I might actually regret both of those. They don’t have that menacing rising triplet figure in the celli and basses lurking like an overweight sniper. Oh God damn you Oistrakh, that rising line was so tender and juicy I wish to eat it. Bounce with me y’all, the second theme is back. As a group these first movements codas are straight up crazy. Nicely done, everyone involved.

This movement is so Sibelius, man. Dense and dripping with drama and just supremely beautiful. Ah, those seventh chords on the climax of the theme are so money. Reminds me a bit of Puccini only with more ice. Like if he were doing one of those block of ice magic tricks like David Blaine, which would actually be really easy for him because he is not alive. Double fucking stops. Such awesome writing, and perfectly executed. Here we go again, building up to the seventh chord. Let it wash over you like bomb fragments of love, which is the worst analogy anyone has ever written, and that’s saying something coming from me. I love these little triplet figures to close the movement. So meaty.

Coolest finale of the bunch, without question. Every bit as evocative as “March to the Scaffold” only the scaffold is a firing squad and David Oistrakh has all the live rounds. And this is also the perfect way to close a three and a half hour orgy of double stops, too, because this movement is ground zero for kick-ass double stops. They’re fucking everywhere. Recapitulation! Hell yes. That was rad. This, of course, is all just a prelude to the coolest two minutes in all of violindom, the absolute insanity with which this piece ends. And here we go. Playful high notes, wispy little glissandi, effervescent runs, and oh god the double stops. These octave leaps are what make life worth living, and the fury of the horns in the tutti is probably a close second. God damn what magic. I gotta get the fuck out of here. Shut it down!

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10 thoughts on “The Big Six: a stream-of-consciousness live blog of the famousest violin concerti

  1. You’ll want to listen to Munch’s recording of Symphonie Fantastique with the BSO.

  2. Considering that I’m an amateur violinist I usually have a hard time warming up to violin concertos, and when it happens, it’s mostly because the music is simply too good to ignore other deficiencies I might find.
    Then I heard the Barber Concerto the first time and I *instantly* connected with it. It was pure magic! That made me realise: it’s when the composer plays to the strength of the instrument when I consider it a true concerto. And what can a violin do best? Sing! And the same goes for the cello.
    I see double stops mostly as colour. As another technique available in the toolbox. Is it a sign of technical proficiency of the soloist? Fuck yeah, I envy every violinist who can play the octave double stops in the Sibelius in tune (which is chock-full of them)! And of course, when you’re mad as a hatter (Shostakovich No. 1 cadenza) it’s absolutely necessary, but notice how much Shosty also lets the instrument sing!
    And just a FYI: you’re not the only one who got teary-eyed in Barber’s concerto …

  3. Pingback: Words Related To Music | Words Related

  4. Yeah, that Brahms kills. I have to hand it to everyone involved! Riveting.

    Regarding your comment about the seemingly bizarre last movement of the Barber, I remember that it was a commission for the son of the head of Fels-Naptha soap. This soloist was not impressed with the first two movements (HUH??) and wanted something flashier for the finale. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The concerto was premiered by someone else, in the end.

  5. I’m curious why Dvorak’s violin concerto isn’t considered part of the pantheon. Do you have any suggestions (personal or professional) why this is the case?
    Obviously D’s cello concerto is always at the top of any list for that instrument, but to me his violin concerto is just as amazing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  6. I love the Dvorak Concerto. It’s an amazing piece. It would probably be in the group immediately after the six, along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, etc. I don’t know that there’s a good explanation as to why it isn’t as popular, other than the fact that the Brahms, Tschaikovsky, Barber, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Sibelius are just too awesome.

    If you can find it around the internets, there’s a really great performance with Arabella Steinbacher (and Walter Weller/WDR) that I recommend highly.

    Thanks for stopping by, Gordon!

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  8. It’s on the Internet and freely available for your use as you see fit! Later man!

  9. I’m a sucker for Korngold. Got any opinions about his violin concerto?

  10. I have to confess to not knowing the Korngold at all. I do like the orchestral music of his that I know (F# Symphony, Sinfonietta), so it would stand to reason I would enjoy the VC. Do you have a recommendation on where I ought to begin with the Korngold VC?

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