A Matter of Interpretation: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Amongst one of his lesser known works, Beethoven’s only violin concerto is certainly unusual, incredibly exposed solo lines and thinly woven melody hallmarks of a style always seen in Beethoven’s more tentative ventures into new forms. While Beethoven was definitely comfortable with the violin, one only needs to look at his violin sonatas to hear a composer in true mastery of an instrument, the mixture of violin and orchestra certainly seems to have posed an issue for the composer. The result does reflect this to an extent, quite uncomfortable passages for the solo violin and sparse orchestral tuttis marking for a cautious exploration of theme and melody. Nonetheless the violin concerto is still imbued with a sense of beauty and poise that places it amongst the great violin concerti, even if not truly recognised within the composer’s great repertoire.

The first interpretation of Beethoven’s work comes with a formidable combination of conductor, soloist and orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Itzhak Perlman playing violin. The concerto opens with four crotchets played on the timpani, the listener immediately detecting the input of Barenboim, in the panache with which the instrument is played, bringing life instantly to the piece. The woodwind entry brings forward this wonderful sense of life, a vivacious oboe solo played with the extremities of phrasing and vibrato alongside a bright yet warm tone. The timpani interruption works to continue the flow, the returning oboe phrase underpinned with bassoons and horns imbued with a powerful sense of presence through the accents.

The staccato string quavers, initially quiet, build, before the eruption of a luscious chord across the strings, and the repeat of the string build. The calming of the strings, supported by clean bass entries in a rising scale, give way to upwards motions in the woodwinds, laid gently on top of string chords. As the woodwinds taper off into the strings, the seemingly calm cadence is broken by a ferocious full orchestral entry. The aggression in the string semiquavers, causing some sloppiness in sound blend in the 1st violins, quickly subsides into the flowing first subject of the concerto, played by strings and oboe. The shining tone of the 1st oboe gives a sense of joy to the melody, the woodwind revelling in their line, until the strings take over the theme in a minor turn. The rolling triplets in the lower strings bring a sense of mystique to the performance, Barenboim using tone in the cellos to change the tone as the melody pivots back to the major.

As the oboes return, the melody widens into its full glory, before decaying back into the strings repeating chords, reminiscent of the very opening. This gives away before long into another orchestral tutti, this time imbued with a definite sense of cadence. Alternating melodies in the violins and celli bring the ritornello to an end with falling arpeggios, into the solo violin introduction.

The next recording is with the same orchestra, but with a decidedly different combination of conductor and soloist, Herbert von Karajan and Anne-Sophie Mutter in their prime. As the piece opens with the timpani, the listener immediately notices the presence of a starkly different approach. The hits are noticeable gentler, with a degree of refined touch that is so often lacking from Barenboim’s interpretations. This finesse is carried forward in the oboe melody, equally as warm, but with a much less bright sound.

The strings are far gentler too, the staccato crotchets not creeping and building as with Barenboim, but stately and reserved. The erupting chords in the strings, due to this, feel a little subdued, the revealing of the harmony a little too direct, and lacking the life that the Berlin Philharmonic under Barenboim so effortlessly achieves. The sound blend here, is not necessarily worse, but certainly with different intention. Seeking a more classical sound, the violins play with a noticeable grain in their sound, precision above all else slightly maiming the typically warm sound of the Berlin Philharmonic strings.

The swells of the strings are far subtler, the dovetail into woodwind scales much more fluid, and catering to a much more detailed approach to phrasing and interpretation. Towards the end of each scale, the quavers are slightly held back, as if re-setting before the next entry. Small details in this performance give it the life and energy that Barenboim achieves through brash dynamics and forte string tuttis. The string semiquavers underneath are not of a high dynamic, but simply of higher energy. When the orchestra does finally erupt into an orchestral tutti, it is much more impactful, the first true forte knocking the audience back into their seats. The sound of the strings, the tone at the ends of quavers, is far cleaner than in the Barenboim, even if the blend is somewhat rough in places.

The strings giving way to the oboes once again then feels starkly different, a much darker oboe sound and more precise string sound meshing together to illustrate a considerably different approach to Beethoven in Karajan’s performance. The ornamentation of the strings feels far more prominent, at odds with the normally subdued sound, and brings out the finer details in Beethoven’s writing, whereas Barenboim’s feels all very much the same. The trumpet pedal while the strings hold the melody is brought to the foreground of the texture, complementing and bringing a sense of stability to the moving triplets in the lower strings. When the oboes enter, it is not as abrupt as it is in the other recording, but simply an addition to the already very warm sound created by the Berlin Philharmonic strings.

As the music pivots towards the cadence, the sense of a resolving dominant is felt more deeply, the second appearance of an orchestral forte serving a far more satisfying cadence, in juxtaposition to the other playing rather than simply a rolling end to the orchestral ritornello.

The next recording under consideration is a far more modern one, Hilary Hahn playing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. The modernity of the playing is shown most markedly through the solo style of Hilary Hahn, but also more subtly in the approach of the orchestral strings in the ritornello, jumping between calmness and erupting ferocity with a flexibility that neither Barenboim nor Karajan were able (or willing) to commit to.

The timpani entry is plain, showing very little of what is to come in Slatkin’s interpretation of the Beethoven. The oboe entry that follows, bright in tone, but filled with subtle yet fluid phrasing, however, tells the listener all that they need to know about how the rest of the music will follow. Every entry, from the timpani, to the lower woodwind, is catered to work into the growing phrase. The staccato entries of the strings, smoother in articulation than the other recordings, work to build towards the scales, rather than reaching their own climax before letting the woodwind do their work.

The small break before the end of the scale in the woodwind found in the Karajan recording remains here, albeit less convincingly with the Slatkin, due to a rushing sense of rhythm in the clarinets, seemingly to compensate for slowing down into the last quavers. As the woodwind dovetail to allow the strings to take the melody, the growing phrase that has been rising from the very opening seems to die, before it is immediately carried forward by the orchestral tutti. The maintenance of energy despite an ostensible slowing of pace is remarkable, Slatkin maintaining the energy accumulated over the opening and channelling it into a ferocious tutti. Perhaps it is the precisely timed entry of the bassoons before it that keep the energy flowing, or the metronome-like flow of string harmony that reminds the audience to stay at the front of their seats.

As the tutti descends into oboe melody, the refined phrase-work of the oboes is heard once again, this time curtailing phrases at the ends of bars, creating smaller units of music. This breaks the music up a little, and stifles the flow of melody that has been more or less continuous throughout the opening, and leaves the strings, when they take over the theme, slightly out of place. Nonetheless, the trumpet pedals work to bring stability to the otherwise slightly misplaced melody. As the oboes are reintroduced into the texture again, the music seems to organically grow, the rising in the woodwinds matched by the arpeggios in the lower strings and a subtle crescendo across the orchestra. As the melody is left hanging, the string chords and lingering horn pedal work to keep the energy at bay, until a string tremolo brings the vivacity to the forefront again in a dramatic expression of cadential elegance.

Slatkin then allows the orchestra to wallow somewhat, the end of the ritornello embellished with slightly spread string chords before tapering off into the solo violin introduction, played masterfully by Hilary Hahn. This performance of the opening of Beethoven’s violin concerto is starkly different from that of Barenboim or Karajan, the listener able to hear both small and large structural phrase arcs, building and falling away from certain aspects of the theme, and always maintaining the sense of energy that Beethoven works so diligently to create in his works.

The final performance to be considered is Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Herreweghe. Displaying further modernity in Kopatchinskaja’s incredibly unorthodox interpretation of Beethoven, this recording is unique in its rhythmic approach to the concerto, and vivacity of interpretation. From the very opening, a very different understanding of Beethoven is immediately heard, the timpani graceful but much quicker than any other recording. As the oboes step into the melody, the reason for the quicker tempo is made apparent, the phrases felt in longer beats of minims rather than the docile common time. With this, Herreweghe achieves a sense of energy and anticipation not heard elsewhere, the stepping of the strings, and even the rising bass in the descent of the opening climactic phrase building excitement.

The rising woodwind scales fit perfectly into this approach, seemingly about to reach a zenith of dynamic and an explosion of sound, when the strings interrupt gracefully, tapering it off to a gentle cadence. This makes the eruption that follows all the more dramatic, the leading edge of the horns lingering in the air after the first phrase has been played in the orchestra. The tremolo and quavers, given more urgency by the quicker tempo, seem frantic, the decaying of the tutti into the 1st subject given an intensity not found in other recordings.

Despite being a great deal quicker, the first subject loses none of its inherent grace, the scalic oboes still carrying a sense of poise and elegance through the phrases. The string staccatos, lost in the sound blend, are nearly imperceptible, but add a sense of energy whenever they are heard. As the trumpets intercede to carry the melodies to the strings, they remain in the texture for some time, dynamic hairpins stopping their descent back into the middle of the texture. The tone of the trumpets makes them a little too abrasive, obscuring the line of the violins and triplets of the celli at times, but all working together to create the fluidly flowing sense of melody Herreweghe gives to the Beethoven.

As the oboes join the strings once more, the melody grows to a stirring climax, before dying away suddenly, the absence of woodwinds from the texture far more noticeable in robbing the piece of its pace. This slowing of energy creates a small break in the flow, a welcome reprieve from the relentless energy-building of the past three minutes. The crescendo into the final orchestral tutti then feels well-deserved, not intense and creeping as in the opening, but feeling like a welcome conclusion to a rollercoaster of a ritornello.

The horns drive the melody to its conclusion, the leading edge of horn and trumpet articulation marking the dominant-tonic progression clearly, the arpeggios before the solo violin entry acting as a questioning afterthought more than anything else.

All four recordings are astoundingly different, chasing different aesthetical aims and differing artistic demands from four very different soloists. The older recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic speak of a very traditional approach, Barenboim manifesting incredible energy and vivacity into the performance against Karajan, who offers a far subtler and more precise recording. The work of Slatkin then treads, rather than a middle ground, a progression, a synthesis, mixing the energy and constant drive of the Barenboim with the precision and string blend of Karajan. Elements of Slatkin’s approach to energy, very different from either of the Berlin Philharmonic recordings, are then echoed in the Herreweghe perfomance, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony delivering perfectly on a starkly disparate vision. Yet, there are also similarities between the early and late recordings, Barenboim’s desire for constant energy seeming an equivalent goal to the one that Herreweghe excellently achieves using a quicker tempo and clever re-evaluation of phrasing, both lacking a degree of subtlety heard in Slatkin and Karajan’s representations.

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