The greatest violin concertos of all time
Here is our selection of the greatest pieces ever written for violin and orchestra. Do you agree?
Since its first appearance in northern Italy in the early 16th century, the violin has been an absolute cornerstone of the classical music repertoire. And, as befitting such a central instrument, the violin has had a huge number of concertos written for it. Here are some of the very best.
The best violin concertos of all time
Bacewicz: Violin Concerto No.3
The Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz wrote no fewer than seven violin concertos, although the Sixth was not published or performed during her lifetime. Among these, it's quite hard to pick a favourite, though we'll opt for the Third for its expressive qualities, constant tonal and rhythmic surprises, and successful incorporations of folk styles. Something for fans of Prokofiev, Bartók, Szymanowski and other adventurous 20th-century fiddle concertos.
Recommended recording: Joanna Kurkowicz (violin), Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Łukasz Borowicz (Chandos). Read our review here.
Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor
Either one of Bach's two concertos for solo violin could have made our list, as could the wonderful Concerto for Two Violins. If pushed, we might just select the A minor Concerto, which is blessed with one of classical music's most arresting openings, with the violin grabbing the music by the scruff of the neck shortly after the orchestral introduction.
The slow movement is sighingly beautiful, and then there's that wonderfully carefree, exuberant Finale – in the style of a Gigue, in case you're wondering.
Recommended recording: Hilary Hahn (violin), Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Jeffrey Kahane (Deutsche Grammophon)
Barber: Violin Concerto
When Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto was premiered in 1941, 20th-century Modernism was at something of a high water mark in classical music. However, you wouldn't know it from this beautiful, lyrical concerto, which looks back to composers such as Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
The first movement is sweet-toned and vigorous; the second has a plangent quality that can bring out goose pimples in the right performance, and a major-key resolution that can feel quite overwhelming.
Recommended recording: Gil Shaham (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (Deutsche Grammophon).
Bartók: Violin Concerto No.2
If you listen closely enough, you'll be able to detect that Bartók's second Violin Concerto is, in fact, an extended sequence of variations across three movements. If you don't feel the need to dive in that deeply, though, you can simply enjoy what is a wonderfully agile and lively concerto. Soulful and playful by turns, it has episodes of dissonance: however, it's dominated by enticing melodies and a lively energy taken from folk music.
Recommended recording: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra / Hannu Lintu (Ondine).
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Fascinatingly, Beethoven's essay in this genre remained lost in obscurity for several decades after its first performance 1806. That all changed when the great violinist Joseph Joachim gave a series of performances of the work, conducted by a certain Felix Mendelssohn.
The concerto's first movement is long and relatively peaceful, and the Larghetto verges on the ethereal. The final movement, a Rondo, makes a decisive break with this air of contemplation. Beginning with a famous 'hunting horn' theme, it's a joyous and boisterous finale to one of the more serene violin concertos in the repertoire.
Recommended recording: James Ehnes (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic / Andrew Manze (Onyx). Read our review here.
Berg: Violin Concerto
Alban Berg may be best known as one of the proponents, alongside Anton von Webern and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg, of the Second Viennese School – a musical movement that travelled from late-Romantic tonality into a chromatic, often atonal Expressionism. Some of this music can seem thorny and inaccessible.
The sublime Violin Concerto, however, is Berg at his most emotional, and it is a quite beautiful work – one of the most unashamedly romantic and expressive such pieces from the 2oth century.
Written on the death of Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and the architect Walter Gropius, Berg's Violin Concerto achieves a sublime synthesis between traditional tonality and the 12-note system espoused by the Second Viennese School.
Recommended recording: James Ehnes (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis (Chandos). Read our review here.
Brahms: Violin Concerto
We've already come across Joseph Joachim, above, as the man who helped bring Beethoven's previously neglected Violin Concerto back into the limelight. The Hungarian virtuoso also played a key role in another big-hitting German violin work: Brahms's only concerto for the instrument.
Brahms had promised Joachim a showcase concerto for many years. It finally took the success of the composer's Second Symphony for him to get around to finishing a work for violin and orchestra. But it was worth the wait.
Like the symphony on whose heels it followed, Brahms's Violin Concerto is essentially an emotional and lyrical work, with moments of profound beauty – like the beautiful, sighing theme that interrupts the spikier sections of the opening movement at regular intervals.
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Recommended recording: Jack Liebeck (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (Orchid Classics). Read our review here.
Bruch: Violin Concerto
Some composers seem to achieve a heightened level of expressive power in one particular medium. That certainly seems to be the case with Max Bruch, whose three Symphonies are pleasant if unspectacular, but whose Violin Concerto is one of the pinnacles of the form.
The work opens in exhilarating style, with a quiet dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The violin grows in confidence, eventually unfurling its main theme over a taut, expectant background of timpani and tremolando strings. That main theme is filled with a sense of – what? – foreboding, or mystery; the second theme is a sweeter, more lyrical affair.
The middle movement has some of the power and emotion of the Adagio from Mendelssohn's concerto, before matters are rounded up with a typically exuberant showcase finale.
Recommended recording: Sonoko Miriam Welde (violin), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra / Tabita Berglund (LAWO Classics). Read our review here.
Dvorák: Violin Concerto
The outer movements of Dvorák's fiddle concerto, while pleasant enough, don't rank up there among the Czech composer's finest work. However, it wins a place in our rundown of great violin concertos thanks to its entrancing slow movement. This begins with a haunting melody played by the violin: the moment, near the end of the movement, when this theme gets another runout (courtesy of the full orchestra this time) is a piece of pure Dvorákian magic.
Recommended recording: Rachel Barton Pine (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Teddy Abrams (Avie). Read our review here.
Elgar: Violin Concerto
Elgar's concerto for the instrument is a substantial work, with a typical performance clocking in somewhere around the 50-minute mark. It's also one of the most moving pieces written for violin and orchestra, with that recognisable Elgar solemnity mixed with some dazzling solo writing.
Read our reviews of the latest Elgar recordings here
It's also a challenging piece for the soloist, with its constant multiple-stopping and rapid shifts around the instrument. The composer himself made a recording with a young Yehudi Menuhin, which has remained in the catalogues ever since it went on sale back in 1932.
Recommended recording: Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Hallé / Mark Elder (Hallé). Read our review here.
One of the first pieces to make the composer's name outside the Soviet Union, Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium (1980, revised 1982 and 1986) is a violin concerto by another name. It takes its name, in fact, from Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering), whose theme it borrows.
The Bach theme is heard at various points during the single-movement work, but each time it seems to dissolve. Then, at the end, it emerges anew, played backwards by the violinist. It's a moment of serene resolution.
Recommended recording: Gidon Kremer (violin), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Charles Dutoit (Deutsche Grammophon).
Higdon: Violin Concerto
Composed for the violinist Hilary Hahn, the Violin Concerto by US composer Jennifer Higdon opens with playful harmonics, followed by some ethereal percussion effects. The gutsy violin part achieves a perfect balance with the orchestra throughout.
The second movement, ‘Chaconni’, develops from a series of repeated chord progressions, through which the soloist weaves energetic filigrees. Then there's a final movement, inspired by the fantasy of Hahn running her way to an Olympic medal, is full of energy and rhythmic verve.
Recommended recording: Hilary Hahn (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (Deutsche Grammophon). Read our review here.
Korngold: Violin Concerto
Few violin concertos open in as unashamedly romantic a manner as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's of 1945. By this time the composer, an exile from Austria to the US, had become a successful writer of Hollywood film music, and you can hear the influence of the silver screen in this big, epic, emotional work.
Like the Barber above, there are many moments of intense beauty, although Korngold also tests the violin to its expressive limits during the first movement.
Recommended recording: James Ehnes (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (Onyx).
Ligeti: Violin Concerto
First performed in 1990, György Ligeti's Violin Concerto can be a bewildering experience for the first-time listener – in particular its outer movements, where Eastern European folk themes are mixed with more otherworldly effects and where the musical argument can be difficult to follow at times.
- Read our reviews of the latest Ligeti recordings here
Our regular contributor Stephen Johnson has called the concerto 'a kind of cornucopia of effects and techniques, a wild collage of atmospheres and colours' that employs 'microtonality, rapidly changing textures, comic juxtapositions... Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to medieval and Renaissance music and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery.'
Recommended recording: Agustin Hadelich (violin), Norwegian Radio Orchestra / Miguel Harth-Bedoya (Warner Classics).
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
The melody that opens Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, once heard, is never forgotten. Other composers begin their concertos with an orchestral introduction before the soloist comes in. Not Mendelssohn here: the violin come straight in with a plangent, surging melody that immediately grips the listener.
The second and third movements are, in their way, just as memorable. The former features a simple yet memorable melody that has all the songfulness and expressivity of an operatic aria. The finale, meanwhile, has some of the same quicksilver energy of Mendelssohn's much-loved overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Recommended recording: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Vladimir Jurowski (Hyperion). Read our review here.
Moeran: Violin Concerto
Ernest John Moeran is a composer who doesn't get enough love in general, and that's particularly true for his gorgeous Violin Concerto. The mood of the first movement is pastoral: Vaughan Williams fans will find much to enjoy here. The second movement is a valse alla burlesca, a powerful waltz that manages to sound both boisterous and mysterious, as if a great gust of chill winter air has been blown into a medieval banqueting hall.
Recommended recording: Lydia Mordkovitch (violin), Ulster Orchestra / Vernon Handley (Chandos).
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.5
Which of Mozart's five Violin Concertos to choose for our list? Well' we've opted (by a whisker) for the Fifth Concerto. That's partly because the orchestra has more to do in this final concerto, where in the other four it has largely accompanied the violin part. But there's also that memorable Finale, with its so-called 'Turkish' elements: a nod to a contemporary craze for all things Ottoman.
Recommended recording: Sebastian Bohren (violin), CHAARTS Chamber Artists / Gábor Takács-Nagy (Avie). Read our review here.
Panufnik: Four World Seasons
A 21st-century reflection on Vivaldi's famous Four Seasons, Roxanna Panufnik's violin concerto sounds both contemporary and uniquely atmospheric, drawing on sound worlds from around the globe. Like Vivaldi's work, each movement represents a season – but Panufnik adds a geographical location too.
So, we get 'Autumn in Albania', with its strong Slavic inflections, followed by 'Tibetan Winter', which features a Tibetan singing bowl. The seasonal cycle is completed by 'Indian Summer', which draws on Indian violin performance practice; and 'Spring in Japan', in which the instrument takes on some of the qualities of Japan's national instrument, the koto.
Recommended recording: Tasmin Little (violin) / BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos).
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No.1
When it comes to Prokofiev's two violin concertos, it's quite difficult to nominate one over the other. Both are wonderfully dramatic, beautiful, and both rhythmically and tonally adventurous as you'd expect from this composer. The Second has that hypnotic middle movement: however, we'll take the First, for the first movement's tangy harmonies and abrasive sul ponticello sections.
Read our reviews of the latest Prokofiev recordings here
Recommended recording: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Estonian National Symphony Orchestra / Neeme Järvi (BIS). Read our review here.
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1
Shostakovich wrote two Violin Concertos: the Second is an understated piece that offers up its rewards slowly, but the First is immediately apparent as one of the greatest works ever written for violin and orchestra. In particular, the third movement – a deeply felt passacaglia – contains music of transcendent beauty. The searching, introspective violin melody, once heard, is never forgotten.
A challenging piece for the soloist, Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto is instantly accessible to the listener.
Recommended recording: David Oistrakh (violin), Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra / Yevgeny Mravinsky. Read our review here.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius' 1904 concerto is one of the most unashamedly Romantic in the repertoire. Each of the three movements is bewitching in its own way.
The opening movement features a long-breathed, haunting melody, faintly Slavic in flavour, with certain passages that reach a rhapsodic intensity. There's then a rather becalmed, reflective Adagio, before a terrifically exciting finale that has been compared to the sound of polar bears dancing on the snow.
Initially slow to gain recognition, Sibelius' composition is now recognised as one of the very finest violin concertos ever written. A good performance can transport you effortlessly to the snowy wastes of northern Finland.
Recommended recording: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon). Read our review here.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
With its high drama, unabashed emotionalism, rhythmic verve and sackful of good tunes, Tchaikovsky's might be the ideal violin concerto to unleash upon a classical music newcomer.
- Read the latest Tchaikovsky reviews here
Not that the 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick would have agreed, mind. Hanslick, conservative in his tastes, labelled the concerto 'stinking music'. Then again, Hanslick was famously close to Brahms, who had written his own violin concerto at around the same time. Tchaikovsky had been unimpressed with the latter.
Unfettered by this musical tribalism, we can recognise the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for what it is: a hugely powerful, energetic and melodic piece of music in which the violin is used to beautiful, song-like effect across all three movements.
Recommended recording: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), MusicAeterna / Teodor Currentzis (Sony). Read our review here.
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
This one is, in fact, four violin concertos – one for each season – but it's so well known and loved as one integral piece of music that Vivaldi's endlessly inventive Four Seasons has to make our list.
Across its many musical depictions – from buzzing flies to goatherds snoozing in the sun – Vivaldi's famous suite of violin concertos constitutes one of the greatest pieces of musical scene-painting in the entire canon.
Recommended recording: Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics). Read our review here.
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.