Brahms - Violin Concerto in D: Full Works Concert Highlight of the Week

Jane Jones urges you to put one of the Big Four in your Top Three!

It’s January, which means only one thing in the Classic FM calendar – nominations are invited for the top 300 pieces of classical music, which we call the Hall of Fame. Once all your suggestions are in, we start counting the votes for each work and that takes us to Easter when the final three hundred are revealed. It always seems faintly impossible to narrow down personal favourites to only three, but somehow we manage, and on this week’s Full Works Concerts every piece you hear has its place in the current Classic FM Hall of Fame.  That obviously makes it difficult to pick a highlight for the week, but I’ve chosen Brahms’s Violin Concerto.

Begun in 1878 when Brahms was on holiday at his favourite resort in the Carinthian mountains, his only Violin Concerto is included in what’s called the ‘Big Four’ – all German! But the piano playing Brahms is in good company as the other three best violin concertos ever come from Beethoven, Bruch and Mendelssohn. The new work was up against the best even at its premiere, since the programme for New Year’s Day 1879 at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus began with Beethoven’s masterpiece and ended with this latest composition from Brahms, who was also the conductor. The soloist that evening was his friend and advisor, Joseph Joachim (pictured) who’d made a number of suggestions on how Brahms might improve his new concerto. It got an even better reception in Vienna a fortnight later, with spontaneous applause for the soloist’s cadenza, which in fact had been written by Joachim, but in praising his friend’s musical addition, you’ll find no hint of bitterness from Brahms. 

There was plenty of criticism from others. The parallels with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto written in the same key seemed to undermine the ambition of Brahms’s music, which was wrongly perceived as simple, and lacking virtuosity.  It was certainly contrary to what both soloists and audiences expected at the time, which is why it was condemned as a work ‘not for the violin, but against it’. Stars like the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he ‘didn’t want to stand on the rostrum, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio’. Others like Henryk Wieniawski were more blunt, describing it as ‘unplayable’.

In fact, the three movement concerto with it’s technical and complex writing for the violin, is notoriously difficult to play and without the usual flashy virtuosic moments, it could be considered as an unrewarding night’s work for the violinist. But Brahms wanted to compose music where the violin and the orchestra would share dialogues and duets, with a sympathetic interplay between the soloist, the orchestra and even other individual instruments. Put it all together, and there’s a sense of perfect balance with all the performers working towards this wonderfully constructed melodic masterpiece. 

There, I’ve put my cards on the table – I may be heading up #TeamBach this year but this is definitely a contender for one of my three hall of fame votes.