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There was a time, in his twenties, when, if he’d been asked the question "What’s your occupation?" Sibelius would have answered, "Violinist".
Having studied the violin from fairly early on, he soon went beyond the merely competent to being really pretty good. The cow standing on his tracks to progress, though, was Martin Wegelius. He was the boss of the Helsinki institute where Sibelius had gone to learn how to be a better fiddler.
Wegelius began to teach the young Sibelius composition and everything changed in the mind of the pupil. Composition became the only thing. It’s true to say that Sibelius never totally left his first love, the violin, behind though – which explains why this concerto is the only one he wrote. How he would have loved to premiere it himself – if only his performance technique had developed at the same pace as his compositional genius.
In the end, a disastrous premiere led Sibelius into the inevitable revisions that ultimately led to the standard version that is most widely known today (although he would almost certainly have continued to polish the piece anyway). In the 1990s, Leonidas Kavakos was allowed to record the original, which is now on record, and it is said to take even more technical skill than the revised one. Our recommendation below is for the standard rendition, which is in itself truly memorable.
Maxim Vengerov (violin); Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Warner: 2564693673.
Illustration: Mark Millington