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

Joaquín Rodrigo: The (Almost) Complete Music for Piano

Recently, I wrote about the extraordinary orchestral music of 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999). In that piece, I lauded a collection of Rodrigo’s orchestral work, all conducted by the esteemed Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz with three different orchestras. Today, I would like to share with you the best and most complete recordings of Rodrigo’s piano music, a two-disc set by Gregory Allen and Anton Nel (two piano and piano four hands works).

I wish other music CDs had as much detail about each of the pieces as the enclosed booklet by Gregory Allen and Linton Powell has, nicely indexed by CD track in the margins of the narrative. They write: “The present recordings represent the first complete collection of Rodrigo’s original piano music for two and four hands, omitting only a few transcriptions and lost early works.” In a footnote, they detail the works that are excluded. I am familiar with only one of these, the Cinco piezas del siglo XVI of 1937, which is worth seeking out.

At the end of the documentary Shadows and Light, made when Rodrigo was 90, there is a spellbinding performance of Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande) of 1926. I’m pretty sure the recording they used was the one on these discs. The tempo and sensitivity of this performance is perfect. I have another recording that seems rushed by comparison, and it ruins the mood.

Here we have 2 hours and 33 minutes of delightful piano music composed by Joaquín Rodrigo, sure to increase your appreciation for this great 20th-century composer. Of course, I have a number of favorites.

  • Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande)
  • Cinco piezas infantiles (Five children’s pieces), for two pianos
  • Sonatina para dos Muñecas (Sonatina for two Puppets), for piano four hands
  • Gran Marcha de los Subsecretarios (Grand March of the Subsecretaries), for piano four hands
  • Atardecer (Dusk), for piano four hands
  • À l’ombre de Torre Bermeja (In the Shadow of the Crimson Tower)
  • Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla (Prayer of the Princess of Castile), from Cuatro piezas para piano

If you need any more convincing that this recording is a “must have”, here are words written by Joaquín Rodrigo himself.

“Gregory Allen’s recording of my works for piano is excellent. His magnificent technique and his authentically fine interpretation satisfy me completely.”

—Joaquín Rodrigo, Madrid, 1991

The Extraordinary Music of Joaquín Rodrigo

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)

Joaquín Rodrigo was born in Sagunto, Valencia, Spain on November 22, 1901. At the age of three, a diphtheria epidemic ravaged his community and he was not spared. His eyes were damaged and he soon lost his eyesight. Despite his blindness, he went on to become Spain’s greatest composer of the 20th century. After immersing myself in his music for the past several weeks, this avid music listener would like to suggest that Joaquín Rodrigo was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. I believe his acclaim has not yet reached its peak, and that many of his works that to the present day have seldom been played will soon become part of the standard repertory.

Rodrigo is primarily known for his wonderful guitar concertos: Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), Fantasía para un gentilhombre (1954), Concierto Madrigal (1966), and Concierto Andaluz (1967), but have you heard his purely orchestral work A la busca del más allá (In search of the beyond)? Or his piano version of Zarabanda lejana?

There is no better introduction to the music of Joaquín Rodrigo than the four-CD set from EMI Classics, The Rodrigo Edition. One of the foremost interpreters of Rodrigo, Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz skillfully conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de México, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in these completely satisfying performances.

EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2
EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2

Joaquín Rodrigo died in 1999 at the age of 97. When he was 90, a loving and insightful documentary was produced, titled Shadows and Light. Please seek it out! It is well produced and inspiring. You can view this documentary on medici.tv (much of it is in English, but for the parts that aren’t you have the option to select English subtitles), or purchase the DVD through Amazon.