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If you went to a concert where the soloist suddenly launched into a random piece between the first two movements of the concerto that you’d paid to hear, your reaction would surely be one of indignation. Well, that’s what happened in Vienna on 23 December 1806 at the premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
The composer’s good friend and the evening’s soloist, Franz Clement, interrupted the concerto at the end of the opening movement with one of his own compositions, which he played on one string and with the fiddle upside down!
Beethoven began sketching his concerto’s first movement in the early 1790s, but not to completion. His forte lay with the piano and not the violin, so it wasn’t until he had finished the majority of his concertos on the former that he returned to what has since been acknowledged as the ‘King of Concertos’.
Sadly, it received only a lukewarm response from the critics at its premiere and it wasn’t until 40 years later, when Joseph Joachim performed it in London and Dusseldorf, that it got the recognition it deserves.
Joachim was regarded as the greatest violinist of his generation and Jascha Heifetz known as the greatest of the 20th century. We are blessed with a number of the latter’s recordings, including a few he made of Beethoven’s Concerto. His 1955 interpretation is a tour de force, yet he always maintains his known attributes: beautiful phrasing, sweetness of tone and seamless virtuosity.
Yehudi Menuhin, in his mono recording made two years earlier, doesn’t quite possess the same impeccable technique but along with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, he really gets to the heart and soul of the work – the slow movement being a good example.
Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s revered account is also insightful and deeply expressive, but more expansive. He uses his own elaborate, albeit controversial, cadenzas which are based on Beethoven’s own arrangement of this violin work for piano and orchestra.
Conversely, Itzhak Perlman, like all our other contenders apart from Schneiderhan, plays those cadenzas written by the violin virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. Perlman delivers a wonderfully shaped reading, passionate, yet never self-indulgent. He judges the tempi to perfection, as in the last movement which is full of unremitting joy.
Arthur Grumiaux also has the measure of this finale, as well as possessing an exquisite tonal quality. His 1974 recording has been transferred to SACD, so those with surround-sound can immerse themselves in the rich, colourful landscape of this concerto. So, just a handful of the many fine readings currently available, but in a photo-finish between Schneiderhan and Perlman the latter wins by a bow’s hair!
THE RECORDING TO OWN
Itzhak Perlman (vln), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Carlo Maria Giulini In a very competitive field the dream-team of Perlman and Giulini has produced a truly outstanding version that is worthy of benchmark status.
EMI Classics 965 9232
■ Yehudi Menuhin (vln), Philharmonia/Furtwängler A highly romantic but also deeply serious take from Menuhin and Furtwängler.
EMI Classics 566 9752
■ Jascha Heifetz (vln), Boston Symphony Orchestra/Munch Impetuous, yet gloriously refined playing from the unique talent of Heifetz.
RCA Victor 09026 68980-2
■ Wolfgang Schneiderhan (vln), Berlin Phil/Jochum A giant of an interpretation where passion and beauty are taken to another level.
DG 447 4032
■ Arthur Grumiaux (vln), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Davis The one to go for if surround-sound is a priority.
Pentatone PTC 5186 120