Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

Tchaikovsky: [re]creating the First

 

Back in 2013, when this blog was but a fledgling, I thought it would be clever, as my very first post, to discuss Tchaikovsky creating his first symphony. The post, entitled “Creating the First” applied to both him and me, you see. I just love Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 and I love the story behind it. However, since it was the first post in a blog that had zero readers besides my husband, a few of my siblings and/or saintly friends, well, it didn’t get much reading coverage.

So, indulge me, dear reader. And do read on. It’s a great story and a great work of music. To this day, it’s one of my favorites among Tchaikovsky’s many treasures.

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While a longtime fan of Tchaikovsky, I must confess that, up to a year ago, I’d never heard his Symphony no. 1, subtitled Winter Daydreams. Further, a lot of times you have to hear a symphony a few times before it impacts you. You sit in your symphony seat and think, Hmm. Interesting. Possibilities. Not this one. The music slipped right past my inner-music-critic, through the back door of my heart and settled right into place with an uncanny familiarity and sense of rightness. It produced a palpable thrill, a quickening in my heart. All I could think, that night at the San Francisco Symphony, was, “where have you been all my life?” And to think it had been there all along, overlooked, tucked beneath the majesty and weight of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

My fondness for Winter Daydreams has only grown since that first listening experience. Interesting, then, to learn that such a lovely, assured, balanced symphony actualized only after a tremendous struggle. Program notes, CD liner notes and the Internet have provided me with a fascinating (if conflicting) history of this symphony’s creation. The story has it that Pyotr, twenty-six, newly graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, struggled terribly with it, partly owing to his challenges with writing in the era’s accepted symphonic style. His former tutors, Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Nikolai Zaremba, were slavish followers of the symphonic model established by Haydn, Mozart, reinforced by Beethoven. It’s also what they wanted to see from their Russian students. Tchaikovsky had tried, of course, to emulate the masters, their Germanic form with its rules of exposition and proper development, but kept falling short. His efforts sounded melodic, not symphonic. They sounded Russian, imbued with folkloric character and flavor. When Tchaikovsky tried to make his music  sound like Beethoven, all that came out was Tchaikovsky. The symphony work challenged him, taunted him, stressed him to the point of near-breakdown, but he persevered.

Finally, he had a quasi-finished product. Aware of what he would come up against, Tchaikovsky nonetheless made his way back to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to seek the opinions of his former tutors, Rubinstein and Zaremba, resulting in an exchange that might have sounded like this:

  • Rubenstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] It’s lame. Fix it.
  • Zaremba: Yeah. What he said.
  • Tchaikovsky: Okay.
  • [Months pass, the young Pyotr works tirelessly on it, and finally returns.]
  • Tchaikovsky: Okay, so how’s this?
  • Rubenstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] Meh.
  • Zaremba: Meh.
  • Tchaikovsky: Why am I trying to mold myself in the image of your conservative, Germanic-based standards when it’s just not what I’m good at? I am so out of here. I gotta be my own person. [Storms out of room, score tucked under his arm.]
  • Rubenstein: [Shrugs.] Typical, know-it-all, new conservatory graduate.
  • Zaremba: [Shakes head.] Kids.
  • Rubenstein: No kidding. Kids.
  • Zaremba: Don’t worry. History will eventually prove whose is the greater talent.
  • Rubenstein: Well, except you might not like how short your Wiki is.
  • Zaremba: [Hesitates.] What’s a Wiki?
  • Rubenstein: That’s exactly the right attitude to take, my good fellow!

Tchaikovsky went home, looked over the revisions he’d made to suit his former tutors and realized they were as “meh” as they’d accused. Over the next few months he switched it all back to the original, 100% Tchaikovsky version. Well, 95%, because, as it turns out, he’d thrown away some of his original notes and therefore, within the first movement, had to keep the revised second thematic voice, incorporating Zaremba’s suggestions.

It worked. Pieces had previously been considered performance-worthy: the Adagio, then the Adagio and Scherzo, but only now did the full symphony find favor, with Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai, in charge at the Moscow Conservatory. In February 1868, it was performed, and deemed a success. Oddly, Tchaikovsky whisked it back into his possession, pulling it out to revise again, years later, and its second performance wasn’t until 1874.

Winter Daydreams is a delight: fresh, assured and just plain fun to listen to. The violins introduce the first movement with a shimmering, sweet tremolo, giving it a dreamy, gossamer texture, that perfectly illustrates the movement’s subtitle, “Daydreams of a Winter Journey.” Listening, a shivery magical feeling comes over me. I’m a child again, listening with wonder as the music conjures the excitement, the thrill of dreaming, a young person’s imminent discovery of the wonders of the adult world. The second movement, the Adagio, subtitled “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists,” is not gloomy in the least. It’s lovely, textured, evocative. Images come to mind, a winter twilight, being indoors with a fire crackling in the grate, roasting smells wafting from the kitchen and outside, snow gently falling. Yeah, that kind of feeling. The third movement, the Scherzo, more lighthearted and jaunty, offers melodic little precursors to Nutcracker’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” and displays the broad, sweeping expansiveness of Tchaikovsky’s music, so perfect for dance. What challenged Tchaikovsky so much in the symphonic form is decidedly spot-on for the ballet.

The fourth and final movement develops from somber, pensive, into wildly triumphant. Its flavor is exuberant and proud, as if to state “this is me, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and you’ll never mistake my music for anyone else’s.”

You’ve got to admire the man’s spirit and tenacity, not to mention his musical genius. You’ve got to love his Winter Daydreams. Or at least get out there and give it a listen. If you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, it won’t disappoint.

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Nutcracker: Tis the Season

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NUT·CRACK·ER
ˈnətˌkrakər/
Noun

  1. A small aluminum device for cracking nuts.
  2. A little painted wooden soldier with a dislocating jaw that performs aforementioned task.
  3. An 1892 ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa (and Lev Ivanov), first performed in the U.S. by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve in 1944, now a holiday tradition throughout the  world, particularly in American ballet companies (not to mention a huge money-maker for every company that performs it).
  4. The accompanying symphonic work in its full form. Not to be confused with “The Nutcracker Suite,” which includes only excerpts from the full score. It really annoys dancers when you refer to the ballet as the Nutcracker Suite. It isn’t. So don’t.

I suggest you click on the embed below ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7U_gpW1J4LM), an audio recording of the whole score (except where the orchestra cut out a handful of counts, around 21m, and don’t ask me why) and listen to the music as you read. A cup of egg nog in your hand, or some hot mulled wine, might make it even more fun. Be my guest. Let’s get this holiday party started.

Ready?

First let’s talk about the ballet. You know the story, right? Certainly, if you’re a ballet peep (in which case you might have gotten as eye-rolling tired of it as I have). But for the benefit of my readers who aren’t ballet peeps, I’ll summarize. In a nutshell, if you will. Set during a 1890’s European family’s celebration of Christmas Eve, with family, guests and gifts. For Clara, the daughter, a mysterious-looking nutcracker from everyone’s favorite guest, the equally mysterious and, well, maybe a little whacked out, Herr Drosselmeyer. She’s charmed with the nutcracker, little brother is jealous, a scuffle for it results in Nut getting broken. A real buzz-kill. Party ends shortly thereafter. Post-party, Clara hangs with the now bandaged Nut, falling asleep on the couch with it. Here, things get psychedelic. Family Christmas tree in the corner grows 20x its size, oversized mice scurry in. Nut comes to life, leaping up for battle. Calls out for his soldier minions to join him. Clara’s family’s living room has now become a battlefield. Just when the evil Mouse King is about to do in the Nut, Clara hurls a shoe, killing Mouse King. With that, an evil spell breaks, transforming Nut into a prince. In gratitude, he takes Clara to his kingdom in The Land of Sweets, where various candied characters come out and dance for them. It’s vivid, colorful. The music is sprightly and all are happy.

Certainly that’s what the audience is feeling, and since its U.S. 1944 inception, it’s become a much-loved ballet and holiday ritual. But in 1892, audience members regarded each other afterward in a mix of bafflement and horror. WTF? they were probably asking. This was the venerable Tchaikovsky? He of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake? This sugar-coated musical concoction?

Poor Tchaikovsky. It hadn’t been his choice to write it that way. He was part of a duo, and this was a commission by the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. It was Marius Petipa and him, working together after their sweeping success with The Sleeping Beauty two years earlier. (They would go on to further collaborative success with a Swan Lake revival in 1895, which Tchaikovsky had first composed back in 1876). Petipa got first hand with the material after winning support over his choice of ETA Hoffman’s fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as the basis for the ballet. Petipa worked the material, set everything up just so, and handed to Tchaikovsky a bar-by-bar musical wish list. (Ironically, illness would require Pepita to bow out, leaving Ivanov to finish the choreography.)

A rough way to work. Tchaikovsky’s first efforts bored even him. And made him sort of panic. Tchaikovsky had suffered from depression all his life, and this point was no exception. News of his beloved sister’s death midway through his efforts on Nutcracker sent him tumbling deeper into melancholy and despair. But, as is so often the case of the creative artist, to the public’s benefit, from that grief-stricken place, Tchaikovsky composed some of the score’s most beautiful music, that made it so much more than a sugar-coated accompaniment to the dancing. You can hear it in the music, those ethereal places where so much nuance and intensity rise up, it gives you the chills. Listen from 19m to about 21m, the scene where the Christmas tree grows to gigantic proportion. Great dramatic intensity. Also at 24m, when Clara has killed the Mouse King, and she’s traveling with the Nut Prince through the Land of Snow. Puts a lump in my throat. (Dancing the role of the Snow Queen, by the way, was my favorite role of my Nutcracker performances. Less stress than the previous year’s Sugar Plum Fairy, and oh, that music. So beautiful. 25 years later, I’m still loving it.) Listen until to 27m30. Sigh… And listen to all of “Waltz of the Flowers,” which commences at 56m. Will never tire of that one.

There are so many performance of the ballet on Youtube. I’ll give you one from the Mariinsky, but first, let me share this. My friend Donna sent me this version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” that simply can’t be beat. Thank you, Kodi the cat. You are a prima ballerina extraordinaire.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obtfsA0oIKk

 

Okay, now here are the humans. Thank you dancers of the Mariinsky.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6R9KFCzurg

Creating The First

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While a longtime fan of Tchaikovsky, I must confess that, up to a year ago, I’d never heard his Symphony no. 1, subtitled Winter Daydreams. Further, a lot of times you have to hear a symphony a few times before it impacts you. You sit in your symphony seat and think, Hmm. Interesting. Possibilities. Not this one. The music slipped right past my inner-music-critic, through the back door of my heart and settled right into place with an uncanny familiarity and sense of rightness. It produced a palpable thrill, a quickening in my heart. All I could think, that night at the San Francisco Symphony, was, “where have you been all my life?” And to think it had been there all along, overlooked, tucked beneath the majesty and weight of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

My fondness for Winter Daydreams has only grown since that first listening experience. Interesting, then, to learn that such a lovely, assured, balanced symphony actualized only after a tremendous struggle. Program notes, CD liner notes and the Internet have provided me with a fascinating (if conflicting) history of this symphony’s creation. The story has it that Pyotr, twenty-six, newly graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, struggled terribly with it, partly owing to his challenges with writing in the era’s accepted symphonic style. His former tutors, Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Nikolai Zaremba, were slavish followers of the symphonic model established by Haydn, Mozart, reinforced by Beethoven. It’s also what they wanted to see from their Russian students. Tchaikovsky had tried, of course, to emulate the masters, their Germanic form with its rules of exposition and proper development, but kept falling short. His efforts sounded melodic, not symphonic. They sounded Russian, imbued with folkloric character and flavor. When Tchaikovsky tried to make his music  sound like Beethoven, all that came out was Tchaikovsky. The symphony work challenged him, taunted him, stressed him to the point of near-breakdown, but he persevered.

Finally, he had a quasi-finished product. Aware of what he would come up against, Tchaikovsky nonetheless made his way back to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to seek the opinions of his former tutors, Rubinstein and Zaremba, resulting in an exchange that might have sounded like this:

  • Rubenstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] It’s lame. Fix it.
  • Zaremba: Yeah. What he said.
  • Tchaikovsky: Okay.
  • [Months pass, the young Pyotr works tirelessly on it, and finally returns.]
  • Tchaikovsky: Okay, so how’s this?
  • Rubenstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] Meh.
  • Zaremba: Meh.
  • Tchaikovsky: Why am I trying to mold myself in the image of your conservative, Germanic-based standards when it’s just not what I’m good at? I am so out of here. I gotta be my own person. [Storms out of room, score tucked under his arm.]
  • Rubenstein: [Shrugs.] Typical, know-it-all, new conservatory graduate.
  • Zaremba: [Shakes head.] Kids.
  • Rubenstein: No kidding. Kids.
  • Zaremba: Don’t worry. History will eventually prove whose is the greater talent.
  • Rubenstein: Well, except you might not like how short your Wiki is.
  • Zaremba: [Hesitates.] What’s a Wiki?
  • Rubenstein: That’s exactly the right attitude to take, my good fellow!

Tchaikovsky went home, looked over the revisions he’d made to suit his former tutors and realized they were as “meh” as they’d accused. Over the next few months he switched it all back to the original, 100% Tchaikovsky version. Well, 95%, because, as it turns out, he’d thrown away some of his original notes and therefore, within the first movement, had to keep the revised second thematic voice, incorporating Zaremba’s suggestions.

It worked. Pieces had previously been considered performance-worthy: the Adagio, then the Adagio and Scherzo, but only now did the full symphony find favor, with Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai, in charge at the Moscow Conservatory. In February 1868, it was performed, and deemed a success. Oddly, Tchaikovsky whisked it back into his possession, pulling it out to revise again, years later, and its second performance wasn’t until 1874.

Winter Daydreams is a delight: fresh, assured and just plain fun to listen to. The violins introduce the first movement with a shimmering, sweet tremolo, giving it a dreamy, gossamer texture, that perfectly illustrates the movement’s subtitle, “Daydreams of a Winter Journey.” Listening, a shivery magical feeling comes over me. I’m a child again, listening with wonder as the music conjures the excitement, the thrill of dreaming, a young person’s imminent discovery of the wonders of the adult world. The second movement, the Adagio, subtitled “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists,” is not gloomy in the least. It’s lovely, textured, evocative. Images come to mind, a winter twilight, being indoors with a fire crackling in the grate, roasting smells wafting from the kitchen and outside, snow gently falling. Yeah, that kind of feeling. The third movement, the Scherzo, more lighthearted and jaunty, offers melodic little precursors to Nutcracker’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” and displays the broad, sweeping expansiveness of Tchaikovsky’s music, so perfect for dance. What challenged Tchaikovsky so much in the symphonic form is decidedly spot-on for the ballet.

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The fourth and final movement develops from somber, pensive, into wildly triumphant. Its flavor is exuberant and proud, as if to state “this is me, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and you’ll never mistake my music for anyone else’s.”

You’ve got to admire the man’s spirit and tenacity, not to mention his musical genius. You’ve got to love his Winter Daydreams. Or at least get out there and give it a listen. If you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, it won’t disappoint.

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