Sibelius Violin Concerto

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) aspired to be a virtuoso violinist, but abandoned that career because he felt that he had begun his “training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.” But it must have been some consolation that his violin concerto of 1904/1905—his only concerto—is one of the most inspired works of that genre in the repertoire.

There are many fine recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but one I am especially fond of is a 1951 recording with Isaac Stern and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.

Here’s the conclusion of the work, nicely illustrating the passion and energy of this performance by Stern and Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic despite the primitive recording technology available at the time. Just goes to show that there were some remarkable recordings made more than 70 years ago!

Conclusion of the 1951 recording of Isaac Stern playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting

While we’re on the topic of violin concertos, here are the best I’ve heard, in chronological order of their composition. Seek them out and enjoy!

Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 – Johann Sebastian Bach (c. 1730)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61 – Ludwig van Beethoven (1806)

Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 – Felix Mendelssohn (1844)

Violin Concerto No. 8 in D major, op. 99 – Charles-Auguste de Bériot (c. 1845)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 26 – Max Bruch (1867)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77 – Johannes Brahms (1878)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35 – Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1878)

Violin Concerto in A minor, op. 53 – Antonín Dvořák (1879)

Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 – Jean Sibelius (1905)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19 – Sergei Prokofiev (1917)

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63 – Sergei Prokofiev (1935)

Violin Concerto, op. 14 – Samuel Barber (1939)

Violin Concerto in D minor – Aram Khachaturian (1940)

Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35 – Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1945)

Violin Concerto in C major, op. 48 – Dmitry Kabalevsky (1948)

And, outstanding violin concerto movements:

Intermezzo (Poco adagio) [2nd & final movement] from Violin Concerto, op. 33 – Carl Nielsen (1911)

Sicilienne (Andantino) [2nd movement] from Concierto de estío, for violin and orchestra – Joaquín Rodrigo (1943)

Curious as to why so many violin concertos are written in the key of D major? I was.

“D major is well-suited to violin music because of the structure of the instrument, which is tuned G D A E. The open strings resonate sympathetically with the D string, producing a sound that is especially brilliant. This is also the case with all other orchestral strings.” – Wikipedia entry for D major

Jean Sibelius: An Introduction

The young Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wanted to be a virtuoso violinist but it was in composition that his greatest talent lay. All his life, he was deeply connected to the natural world, and this love of Nature is expressed in much of his music.

Jean Sibelius in 1913

I know of no better introduction to the music of Jean Sibelius than the two CD set of his Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 4, and Finlandia and the Karelia Suite by Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Decca 455 402-2

The earliest composition featured on this recording is the Karelia Suite, completed in 1893; the latest is the pensive Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911. All of the music on these discs is splendid, the performances inspired, and the recordings immersive.

Ashkenazy seems to have an innate understanding of Sibelius, and his conducting and interpretations shine here throughout.

As with many (most?) of the greatest composers, Sibelius faced a number of challenges and personal demons throughout his life. Though he lived a long and productive life, he wrote almost no new music after his brilliant tone poem Tapiola in 1926, 31 years before his death. He did complete a Symphony No. 8, but threw the score into his fireplace in 1945. Sibelius once remarked, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”

To find out more about the life and music of Jean Sibelius, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent two-part documentary film by Christopher Nupen, completed in 1984. It is available through the classical music streaming channel medici.tv (highly recommended) and Amazon.