The Beethoven Violin Concerto is a beautifully calm piece, which was sadly neglected for decades.
It only gained popularity well after the composer died, but happily is now one of the most frequently performed and well-love violin concertos, well, ever!
Towards the end of 1806 Beethoven's friend, violinist Franz Clement, asked the composer to jot down a nice violin concerto for a concert he was holding in Vienna. Somehow Beethoven dashed it out in a couple of weeks, finishing it only days before the concert!
Because of this Clement didn't get a proper chance to look at the score, and neither did the orchestra. So on the whole it was quite under-rehearsed.
Clement was a highly respected musician, but also a bit of a cheeky show-off. He was annoyed that he didn't get to read through the score fully before the premiere.
So the violinist interrupted the concerto with a piece of his own, which he played on one string of the violin - while holding the instrument upside down!
In any case, the premiere didn't go well at all. The public liked the piece well enough, but critics were a bit bored.
It may have been the lack of proper rehearsal time, or the rather conventional sound of the concerto, but the concerto's premiere didn't really make that much of an impression on people.
So it lay forgotten and dusty, performed only three more times over the next four decades.
It wasn't until, in 1844, violinist Jospeh Joachim revived it with the help of composer Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted. The pair hit the right note (haha...) with audiences, and the Beethoven violin concerto has been a concert favorite ever since.
In fact this peacefulness may have hurt the concerto's popularity in the early years.
A lot of the music critics thought it was too straightforward and conventional - a bit dull even. This might have because Beethoven had to rush it, and didn't take enough time to innovate (my thoughts anyway).
The Beethoven violin concerto isn't really one which violinists can use to show off their talents either, since although it's tricky, it's not flashy. This could have been another reason why the piece was slow to become popular in the virtuoso-mad first half of the 19th century.
But Beethoven did actually innovate a little bit. He guided the violin concerto genre more towards a large symphonic style, which hadn't really been done before.
The first movement of the concerto averages about 25 minutes, which is almost absurdly huge.
The concerto is in three movements...
I quite like the cadenza by Fritz Kreisler (which is the most popular), and also the one by Schnittke, which made some people angry since it sounds extremely modern. I'm also very fond of the cadenza by Jascha Heifetz.
The only idea of a cadenza we have from Beethoven is from a piano version of the violin concerto he wrote, where he has the kettledrum play along with the solo piano (was he feeling OK when he wrote it?).
You can hear the cadenzas by Jospeh Joachim, Kreisler, and Heifetz in this video...
Personally I quite like the vigorous performance by Hilary Hahn, conducted by David Zinman with the Baltimore Symphony. I think it captures all the right moods, especially the upbeat final movement. The recording is from 1998 and is on Sony.
Another recording I really recommend is from a lot earlier, in 1955. The soloist is is the famous Jascha Heifetz, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The tempos are exciting (some may say too quick), the solo violin richly intense, and the orchestra in general a joy to listen to. I recommend it! The recording is on RCA.
Want to explore more Beethoven? Try these pieces:
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