Hi. This is my first opus for this series; thanks to Dumbo who offered me the chance to do it. I contacted him about not including Beethoven's Violin Concerto in the violin concerto mini-series poll, and he pointed out to me that he had somewhat od'd on Beethoven with the symphony diaries, which extended over several months. I could certainly understand that, and when he offered me the chance to analyze it, I said, sure. I expect Dumbo will return next week.
Since I cannot be Dumbo, I thought about doing something different. Some of these diaries have stressed interpretation, focusing on one particular violinist to demonstrate the music, and in some cases the interpretation has been unusual, if not controversial (think Ivry Gitlis' Tschaikowsky). Since I am a violinist and violist, I thought I would offer you several different interpretations of the first movement, and include several different candenzas. I hope you enjoy it.
The Beethoven, as it is affectionately called, is a classical concerto. By this I mean that it follows the established classical form, including a first exposition with the orchestra presenting the themes without the soloist, who then enters for the "repeat" of the exposition.
Exposition? Classical concerto form?
The classical sonata form consists of three or four movements of which the first is what is called sonata-allegro form. Sonatas can be written for any solo instrument or group; when the group is a soloist with orchestra, it is called a concerto. The second movement is usually slow, and the last movement is often a Rondo.
Sonata-allegro form has three essential parts. In the classical exposition, the themes, or melodies, are presented (exposed) in two groups. The first group is in the tonic, that is the home, key. Beethoven's violin concerto is in D-major, for example. Then a bridge between the two themes modulates (moves) to a related key (in D-major this is the key of A-major) and the second theme is presented in this key. There is often a codetta (little coda) that ends the exposition.
Then comes the development section, in which the ideas presented in the exposition are (you guessed it) developed. In early sonatas, this essentially took bits of the themes through several key changes eventually reaching the tonic key once more. Beethoven's great contribution to the form was to increase the length and importance of the development section.
The recapitulation is just that, the themes are brought back, but some changes are permitted, and one is required: the entire section is in the tonic key. This changes the bridge section, which has to give us the illusion of going somewhere while bringing us back to the home key.
In a classical concerto, the recapitulation ends with a cadenza. Candenza means candence, and you can tell when it comes because the orchestra ends with a hearty chord which is clearly leading somewhere. The cadenza is a chance for the soloist to show off. It used to be improvised. For the Beethoven, many virtuosos have written cadenzas. The most performed is by Leopold Auer, who taught most of the great violinists of the early 20th century.
This is followed by a coda, usually short and added to extend the end of the movement. Beethoven often wrote very long codas.
The other thing to listen for in these performances is the rhythmic motif. This concerto was written around the same time as the Fifth Symphony, with its well-known victory motif, and some other works at this time apply this same innovation. In this piece, the motif is introduced by the tympani before the first theme begins. It consists of four quarter notes (one beat each) followed by a whole note (four beats long). It is the foundation of the concerto, occuring both melodically and underneath the melodies.
So now comes the music. The first performance, which I discovered while doing this diary (thank you, Dumbo), is by Joshua Bell and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This performance is the essence of the classical concerto approach. The orchestra is small, in keeping with the classical era. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performs without a conductor, holding meetings to discuss all aspects of the music they play. Joshua Bell is Joshua Bell. And he plays a cadenza he wrote. This clip is the whole concerto. Enjoy.
Bell emphasizes the lyric quality and the lightness of the violin writing. Here is a much more masculine and darker interpretation from David Oistrakh.
This is also the first performance that uses the Auer cadenza. I hate when YouTube cuts up a piece like this but this is such a wonderful performance, it's worth it.
Anne Sophie Mutter makes this a Romantic concerto, with more color and passion. (I don't understand how she manages in a strapless dress, which has become her trademark. I think it makes sure we know she is not a little girl any more.) She also uses the Auer candenza.
I have a personal story about Itzakh Perlman and this concerto. He was the first soloist with the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra at the first concert in Carnegie Hall. I was in the orchestra that year, in the first violin section; I was 15 and he was 19. He came to one rehearsal before the dress rehearsal. We rehearsed in a studio on 49th Street and Broadway. The way we were set up there, I was sitting right next to Perlman.
You may notice that much of the writing is a dialog between the violin and the orchestra, which means that often the orchestra has to re-enter after or while the soloist is playing. Well, at that first rehearsal, I was so amazed listening and watching him play that I missed every single entrance!
This is another complete video. Perlman's interpretation is noteworthy for its clarity and lyricism, closer to Bell than either Oistrakh or Mutter, but still quite different.
I close the official part of the diary with Perlman's performance - I don't think it gets any better. But as a coda, here are a few links to other cadenzas, so you can see some of the ways other players have played with Beethoven's tunes and with the instrument itself.