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Marked for life

img  Tobias

It was on a hot summer afternoon in 1943, during a BBC broadcast, when I first heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I was marked for life; I had never experienced anything like it since I started listening to the violin. It was the beginning of a long journey of discovery that has lasted over sixty years.

Beethoven could not have known what effect his violin concerto would have on the violin repertoire with its many performances, and over the years on its unlimited number of listeners. The Beethoven Violin Concerto is regarded by many as the greatest of all violin concertos, but not necessarily the most popular. My adventure was to introduce me to some of the greatest violinists of their time who would perform the work for me, in the concert hall, on the radio and on gramophone records. The first time I heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto it was played by the Belgian violinist Maurice Raskin in the 1943 BBC broadcast, I still have the cutting from that week’s issue of the Radio Times before me to serve as a reminder of that wonderful experience.  The number of performances I heard over the years would be difficult to calculate, many, the most outstanding, remain with me after all these years.  

Of these performances, some of which I can still hear in my head, are those by Ida Haendel who I heard play the work many times and who could always be relied upon to dazzle me with her classical authenticity which never varied.  I remember hearing several radio broadcasts of the concerto by Ginette Neveu and a live concert I attended. Neveu was a very elemental player and gave the work a spaciousness I have rarely experienced. 

No one who has ever heard the 1928 electric 78s recording of Kreisler will consciously forget the experience. The work is enhanced by Kreisler’s beautiful sound. He recorded the work twice in a matter of a few years; his was the first complete recording. Kreisler is reputed to have said that whenever he played the work he used different fingerings each time, until after he had played it hundreds of times and he finally found the ones that satisfied him. Although Kreisler’s recording was the first complete one it was not the first recording to appear in any catalogue. The first recording was in 1924, a condensed version by Isolde Menges.

For several decades the definitive performance was considered to be that of the German violinist Georg Kulenkampff and still is for some the most lyrical ever. In the 1930s Bronislaw Huberman made an early recording of the concerto.  It was said that he was ‘Half Gypsy; Half Angel,’ even so his waywardness did not suit everyone. Never the less Huberman was revered by his followers and many of his contemporaries.  Another beautiful though little known recording is the early LP of Roman Tottenberg, with the Poznan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the outstanding feature of this performance is that the soloist and orchestra are as one and radiate the fact that they are so comfortable playing together. A combination of soloist, conductor and orchestra in perfect harmony is a rare treat for the ears.

Because there is just not enough space in an article of this size, it is not possible to mention many of the wonderful performances I have heard of this concerto in the years in-between. Thousands of words could be devoted to David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Zino Francescatti, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and more recently Christian Tetzlaff. But we move on. Having heard so many great players perform the concerto I could not imagine there would be one day a violinist who could make me feel as though I had never heard the work before.

Recently I heard Maxim Vengerov’s (see picture) new recording of the Beethoven. It was mesmerizing to say the least. Vengarov, considered by many as the greatest living violinist, has the gift of approaching the music with a youthful freshness, a little faster here, a little slower there. His dynamic range is ideally suited to the Beethoven. Vengarov could be described as the most natural of violinists without the inhibitions of many others; the music just flows and is not filtered in the process. It may be that Vengerov’s style is ideally suited to the work. The first movement Allegro ma non troppo is played with complete confidence, the Larghetto played divinely and Rondo played with controlled mastery. In the Cadenzas, shorter than usual, Vengerov exercises great restraint playing brilliantly, the link cadenza in the Rondo is breathtaking and beautifully executed in the true virtuoso style. Many performances in the past have been spoiled by the overpowering technicality introduced by the soloist who at times has completely forgotten the original intentions of the composer.

Vengerov’s performance holds the attention for several reasons. His playing in parts is divine, as I have already said it reminds me of the early Menuhin performances and then from nowhere there is a reminder of the wayward Huberman. This combination together with the fantastic sound he produces makes the whole thing, for me, probably the best modern performance. What impressed me most was his sound so violinistic, at times I felt I could reach out and touch the wood of his violin to enjoy the sensuous vibrations. I am convinced Vengarov was divinely inspired when he recorded this concerto. It was as if I was hearing the work for the first time, again.

Cheniston is the owner of the violinland web site at

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