In the first of a two-part article, Hadelich discusses timing, tradition and character in the acrobatic first movement. From the December 2016 issue

AugustinH-2012-Trieste, cr Luca Valenta

©Luca Valenta

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s December 2016 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition

This is one of the happiest movements that Tchaikovsky wrote, probably inspired by love. In 1878 he spent several weeks near Lake Geneva, where he was joined by his student Iosif Kotek. Kotek, who had premiered the Waltz-Scherzo a few years earlier, helped to write the virtuosic passages of the concerto; Tchaikovsky would have dedicated it to him if gossip of their forbidden love affair hadn’t already been threatening his reputation in Russia.

Instead he chose to dedicate the piece to Leopold Auer, who delayed the first performance for so long that Tchaikovsky finally withdrew the dedication and gave it to Adolph Brodsky. Brodsky played the premiere in Vienna in 1881. The movement is full of ballet-like jumps, figurations and Classical gestures; Mozart’s influence (Tchaikovsky’s diary referred to him as a ‘musical Christ’) can clearly be heard, for example in the first theme (bar 28), which also resembles the Rococo Variations. The second theme (bar 69) is more sentimental and passionate, with suspensions like longing sighs.

Musical traditions

I was twelve when I first tackled this concerto, but as I’ve played it again and again over the years I’ve found it necessary to take a step back to look at it with fresh eyes. We all hear so many recordings and performances of the Tchaikovsky that most of us have been deeply influenced by its violinistic tradition and history before we even start learning it.

Long after Brodsky played the premiere, Auer edited and cut parts of the concerto to his liking. He taught some of the most important violinists of the 20th century, so these changes were canonised; only in recent decades has it become the norm to play the original version. Tchaikovsky’s markings are often disregarded in this piece and elsewhere, which surprises me, because they are thoughtful and practical; I find many of Auer’s changes unnecessary and even disrespectful. The concerto also suffers from the accumulated ‘baggage’ of tradition: with every year that has passed, interpretations seem to have become more sentimental, to the point that Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries might barely recognise it if they heard it now!

A fresh perspective

We can’t unhear what we have heard, or forget how we’ve played a piece before, but we can revisit the score and think about what is written and why. In order to see the Tchaikovsky Concerto anew, ask yourself: How would I play this piece if I were seeing and hearing the music for the first time? Thinking that way can be difficult, but it can lead to a more natural interpretation.

For example, in bar 24 many people don’t play the crescendo as written: the violin entry in bar 23 should be a response to the orchestra, and the goal of the crescendo should be the A at the start of bar 25, not the E halfway through bar 24. In the second half of bar 27, the B–A–G is often played at half-speed, but if you play the note values written, the music flows more naturally into the theme in bar 28.

I play the theme on the G string, because I feel as though violinists in the audience will throw rotten vegetables at me if I don’t!

Another question is whether to play the first theme (bar 28) on the G string. The music is elegant and piano; if I’d never seen it before, I wouldn’t think of playing it up there: I associate the G string with a juicier, more passionate sound. The G-string fingering originated at a time when each string sounded very different from the others, and the D string was weaker than the G. For this reason fingerings from the early 20th century often contain as few string changes as possible, to avoid unwanted differences in tone during a theme. We don’t have to do that any more: string quality has improved in the last 50 years, and strings have a more consistent sound colour.

For that reason, I don’t think there’s any shame in playing this in first position, if you prefer how it sounds. However, most of the time I do play it on the G, because I feel as though violinists in the audience will throw rotten vegetables at me if I don’t! The tradition has become so entrenched that playing it in first position could almost be distracting, as though I were trying to make a point.


Taking liberties with time

When it comes to tempo, try to follow what the composer wrote, at least initially. The tempo changes at bar 107 (più mosso) and bar 111 (poco più lento), and their counterparts in the recapitulation, are very effective but they are often ignored and played at more or less at the same speed. I start pushing the tempo from the orchestra theme in bars 101–107, and ask the orchestra to drive forwards in bars 105–106, taking me with them. Reaching a very fast tempo at the più mosso section at bar 107 is very exciting, and the poco più lento that follows gives you room to speed up again towards bar 119.

Phrasing structure

Understanding phrasing structure is always important. One tradition is to take time on the fourth beats of bars 50 and 52, to allow for a satisfying leap up the G string – but the phrase in bar 50 continues into 51, then repeats from 52; similarly, bars 52 and 53 should be connected. If you need more time for the gestures into bars 51 and 53, consider making the whole section slower.

Also, from bars 50–56 the music gives the impression of speeding up: at first it moves in two-bar groupings (bars 50–51 and 52–53), then one-bar groupings (bars 54–55), then crotchet (q) groupings (bar 56). This is a classic technique used to get the audience excited, and it sounds like an accelerando even if you don’t get any faster. It is helpful to reinforce these groupings, rather than work against them by taking time at the wrong moments. It is also dangerous to get too fast too soon, because you might be in trouble when the demisemiquavers (thirty-second notes) appear in bar 59!

In the Molto sostenuto il tempo, moderatissimo section from bar 162, it is important to bring out the melody notes of the first theme and the playful, weightless character. When a melody is hidden in passagework like this, it can be helpful to play or sing it on its own, to give yourself a sense of the phrase before adding the other notes back in. The tempo can be flexible here, because the orchestra only has pizzicato, and not on every beat. Often we can see how flexible a composer expects the soloist to be with timing by looking at the accompaniment. Generally, if the orchestra has rhythmic running notes through a solo passage, the composer does not expect us to take time; if it has strategically placed breaks and pauses, or long notes, we have more freedom – for example, on the third beats of bars 162–165.


Different fingerings suit different people. I often stretch instead of shift, which may not always work for people with smaller hands. My fourth finger is short relative to the rest of my hand, so I rarely use it when I’m playing in high positions; someone with a longer fourth finger might use it to play, for example, the first interval of bar 57. While it’s interesting to see how other players solve each technical puzzle, it is important to customise your fingerings to your hand and what works best for you.

Click here for Part 2

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s December 2016 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition