Violinist Iosif Kotek’s trip to Lake Geneva in 1878 to visit his former teacher Tchaikovsky came at just the right time for the Russian composer, who had been stuck in a creative rut after the recent and catastrophic failure of his marriage.
Thoroughly inspired by the piano duets Kotek had brought with him, as well as the presence of the enchanting young man who had almost certainly become his lover, Tchaikovsky laid his stagnating, half-finished piano sonata aside and began work on a new violin concerto.
Within just a fortnight the work was complete, and Tchaikovsky excitedly wrote to his publisher that he had ‘hit upon the idea quite by chance, was carried away and in no time my sketch was nearly finished.’
The piece was not to be premiered until two years later, however, when Russian virtuoso Adolph Brodsky performed the work under the legendary Hans Richter in Vienna. It utterly polarised audiences, some of whom found the score’s ‘modernism’ bracing, and some of whom left half way through the performance in disgust.
It is difficult to hear now what so violently offended people in a work so highly cherished. The Concerto’s free-flowing sense of spontaneity, colourful orchestration and immense emotional intensity has made it a staple of the violin repertoire.
We’ve put our heads together and come up with a definitive list of recordings…
The best recording
Julia Fischer (violin) Russian National Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg Pentatone PTC5186610 (2006)
The Violin Concerto, unlike some works, is not built to withstand the constant interpretive tinkering that befalls so many works of equal stature. Each bar has been written with a single emotional narrative in mind, exalting, exuberant, dancing for joy.
For any recording to be successful, both the soloist and orchestra must be riding the wave of Tchaikovsky’s exulted imagination. This is achieved wholeheartedly in an impeccable interpretation by Julia Fischer – remarkably only 22 years old at the time – and the Russian National Orchestra.
Fischer maintains the rich sonority that is so integral her playing, even under the most relentless technical pressure, whilst conductor Yakov Kreizberg leads the Russian National Orchestra masterfully in what becomes almost a race for expression between orchestra and soloist.
Three more excellent recordings
Issac Stern (violin) Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy Columbia Masterworks MS6062 (1959)
This particular recording, like many of the same generation, uses the Leopold Auer edition which cuts nine bars from the first movement, as well as 44 from the finale, makeing for a performance with a more direct structural impetus, and adding to the already potent fervency that makes the work so enticing.
Having already established himself as one of the great Tchaikovsky interpreters with a magnificent 1994 recording of the concerto with the London Symhpony Orchestra under Emmanuel Krivine, here in this live recording Vadim Repin showcases his talent with another superb performance.
His narrow-fast vibrato and rich tone are particularly poignant in the slow middle movement, and the Concerto under Gergiev’s baton seems to exude celebration, becoming a metaphor for Tchaikovsky’s elated state of recovery.
Lisa Batiashvili (violin) Berlin Staatskapelle/Daniel Barenboim DG 4796038 (2016)
A more pensive, dignified approach to the work is shown here by Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who invests beautifully in Tchaikovsky’s heart-felt inspiration with an enhanced range of dynamics and expressive tonal inflections.
More time is taken to relish the passages of daring bravado, particularly in the first movement’s cadenza which surges ahead in other recordings. Daniel Barenboim supports the nobility of the performance devotedly, making it a must-hear rendition.
And one to avoid…
Gidon Kremer (violin) Berlin Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel DG 2532001 (1979)
Whilst technically a brilliant performance, the Berlin Philhamonic at times feel disengaged with Gidon Kremer, who, unusually for a player of such brilliance, is unpredictable and at odds with the music’s grand sweep.