How to bring out the mystery and joy of one of classical music’s longest opening movements
The first time I played this concerto I was 15 years old, and now I have performed it around 300 times. The more I play it the more I enjoy it, and that’s usually the sign of a good piece! Over the years I’ve become totally free with my interpretation. ‘Free’ does not mean ‘Today I’ll play 20 beats slower’ – it means that I will lean into, say, the G minor section with a different kind of melancholy. I may end the first movement with a beautiful singing tone or as though in memory of the earlier melody. There are so many different ways to play it without making obvious changes to the dynamic or tempo.
When learning this piece, we should ignore all the markings of people who have had ‘great’ ideas about how to play it. Often the solo part is streamlined for violin playing instead of being something that helps our musical expression. Beethoven was very clear, so we should use urtext and draw our own conclusions about the score. For me, this is the most challenging concerto of them all. If we play it as something slow that is holy and meaningful throughout, it stretches all limits of classical music and becomes boring. There is very little solo writing for the violin at the beginning, and it is absolutely necessary for the soloist to become part of the orchestra. We have to think in the same way as the conductor, or nothing will make sense, because the orchestra and the violin are utterly interwoven. Beethoven interjects the three very similar main melodies – all of them simple and singing – with ideas that are angry, menacing, exuberant and even silly, so everything has to find its place.
The opening five crotchet (♩) beats of the timpani (example 1) give us images of marching and war – especially when we hear the type of drum used in Beethoven’s time. Old timps are used by many orchestras and conductors now, to give the sound more character. The D sharp entry of the violins in bar 10 sounds mean and shocking juxtaposed with the singing, childlike D major theme, so there’s an element of war between the harmonies as well. Contrasting radically with the music of two bars before, in bar 28 Beethoven writes a fortissimo tantrum using the military motif in B flat major – a very alien tonality (example 2).
The trumpets here should sound like an attack, and the tempo needs to keep moving – it’s difficult to have a tantrum in slow motion! After that the appearance of the second theme in the woodwinds in bar 43 takes us back to the serenity of the opening, again with the timpani motif. Then in bar 50 the pianissimo trumpets bring the first hint of loss and sadness into the concerto as the music moves into D minor. The piece harbours a lot of violence and anger, even though much of the material is naive and innocent; everything goes through many beautiful changes. There is a story being told, and not as a violin concerto.
At bar 65, the timpani motif becomes laden with promise and expectation (example 3), and I’m surprised at how seldom orchestras explore the fantastic and romantic possibilities here. The first performance of this piece was at Austria’s Theater an der Wien, which has a dry acoustic, and Beethoven might have had just five first fiddles and four seconds. If pianissimo is marked, the playing should be fragile and vulnerable – especially when there are two big fiddle sections in a concert hall with a good acoustic. We have to recreate that wonder and anxiety.
The third theme enters at bar 77 (example 4), sweeping and simple: tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant. All the themes are built almost like children’s songs, which is important because it gives the image of innocence that needs to be reflected in the soloist’s performance from the first entry at bar 89. If we play passionately with a broad vibrato, we might be admired by part of the audience but we will destroy the sense of the piece.
Throughout this movement we are almost always being hit by the military motif, so the freedom to include big tempo changes is limited. But after the solo entrance (example 5) there are three chords in the orchestra and then the violin is totally left alone from bar 93. All of a sudden we could be at home playing for ourselves. It should sound like an improvisation; we can explore where to go and what to do, until the wind theme brings us back to the orchestra. If Beethoven – a genius composer – writes something as simplistic, or even silly, as in bar 122 (example 6), it is for a good reason. It is not an etude, and it should be played with total exuberance! Before it there is a rising scale in the woodwinds, which is very beautiful, but now repeated by the strings in forte it sounds as if he is making fun of his own simplicity. We can emphasise this even more by playing the next solo entrance in a different colour, with a completely different physical and dynamic attitude. The chords of bars 126 (D minor), 128 (C major 7) and 130 (the resolution in F major) have a different and distinct personality – sadness, hope, then fulfilment – but in homeopathic doses. It is much more difficult to play the piece as a human being and not just as a violinist, but it has to be done. As with speech, there is nothing in classical music that is without inflections.
In bar 144 the orchestra plays the theme in dolce and piano, we play another figuration, and in 148 we finally get three bars of melody (example 7). We have to play this as beautifully as we can, of course, but as a continuation of the woodwind melody. It is not a competition – that seems to be difficult for some violinists to understand. From bar 182 the soloist should be led by the string section, not making any new decisions about the tempo. From bar 195 the soloist is alone again apart from another three orchestra chords, two forte and one piano (example 8). There should be a pulse left, so that everyone in the orchestra knows where to put the next note and doesn’t look at the soloist thinking, ‘When is he going to play the next beat?’ There is only one place where that beat can be, and it is the same from everybody: the orchestra, the soloist and the conductor. The soloist should not think, ‘I’ll do this and everyone else can follow.’
We could argue that Beethoven meant the passage from bar 218 to be slurred (example 9). I play it with separate bows, but really it’s a matter of taste. He indicates a sort of rubato by using triplets, quintuplets and straight semiquavers (♬) to give the soloist room by taking away the rhythm, so we have to be free, exploring the way it has been written.
At the end of the solo that begins in example 10, which copies the first entrance almost exactly, the mood changes dramatically. From bar 298 there is a rabid departure from well-being and joy, with an important crescendo for the soloist and the cellos, and radical writing that places the violin on a high F and the cellos on low G (example 11). The subito pianissimo at bar 300 needs to be done excessively because of the harmonic change, and the cellos should use an open string in bar 299 to give a strong, bleak quality. In bar 301 the solo violin can make a more heart-wrenching, singing statement out of the theme (example 12) – this is the first espressivo marking that Beethoven writes.
What was the most relaxed statement from bar 199 now turns into the angriest from bar 327 (example 13) and eventually peacefully changes into the major in bar 376. This statement is obviously very meaningful to Beethoven; we also hear a sweet, content version of it in bar 51 of the second movement. To make a narrative in this piece we have to know its few characters really well so that we understand what they suffer and how they change each time we hear them.
Now we reach the famous episode in G minor at bar 331. The more I play it, the more I try to trust in the amazing forlornness and beauty of this place. We can shade every note to follow the harmony, but it shouldn’t be too obvious. The French horns enter with the military motif in pianissimo in bar 330, which leads the music into the G minor section of the movement. Doing a big rit here can give an alien feel to the motif and upset the expression in the music, so any tempo change should be done almost unnoticeably.
The basses are very important from bar 350 onwards, because they carry the harmonic tension of 353, the disappointed semitone down to A minor in 354, then the big dissonance of 355 and 356, while the soloist crawls into the cellos and listens to the colours. Here comes another section of music that must not be played like a Kreutzer etude! Instead the orchestra can die away and do a slight rit through the crotchets, leaving us in the timeless nirvana from bar 357 (example 14). For me this is a lost person in total darkness; a kind of long descent into the grave in a no-man’s-land of searching. It’s harmonically distant from what’s come before, pianissimo with utter freedom, searching without bar-lines or beats, until the pizzicato military motif of the first violins in bar 361 hesitatingly tells us to run home. There should be no crescendo here because that comes in bar 364 when we go from pianissimo to fortissimo in four beats and suddenly everyone is shouting for joy. This time the military element is in D major and it turns the whole movement around. The material from here is more playful, full of garlands that weren’t there before, all contributing to the sweet, operatic rising melody in bars 400–405 (example 15). The slurs should be kept on the shifts at 400, 402 and 404. It’s more difficult this way, but it’s ten times better to have that expressive moment than a powerful, clean sound. In bar 404 I do a slide via the first finger to show the fantastic connection between the low C sharp and the high E. A general rule in this movement is that where there are lots of semiquaver pianistic patterns, it is not advisable to do a lot of audible shifting. We should do just what we need to play the notes. But here it’s nice to give a feeling that we’re sinking into each one under the slur as the body makes the stretch. If a glissando is totally felt and sincere, it’s a wonderful thing; if it’s superficial, it’s better to do nothing.
After the cadenza at bar 501, we reap the rewards of the movement’s struggle. It’s amazing what Beethoven dares to do: the two melodies that dominate the piece but are so similar appear one after the other, passed between the violin and the bassoon, and are now allowed to be together without the interruption of the timpani motif – a silent victory to end.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was not successful at its first performance, so Beethoven rewrote the whole thing for piano – including cadenzas. Over the centuries the cadenza has become a display of virtuosity, often recapturing the beauty of moments in a piece, but in his piano cadenza Beethoven goes to a very different place. He expands on the idea of his first-movement military march theme, now at a ridiculously fast tempo, and he makes the timpani beat relentlessly to emphasise the element of struggle present throughout the movement.
Beethoven’s cadenza is extremely lengthy. I’ve made a shorter version for violin, because I find that the fiddle doesn’t carry such a big solo in a concerto as well as a piano would do. It isn’t ideal to transcribe a piano part for violin, but musically I find Beethoven’s ideas far better connected to the piece than other cadenzas, which are often just 20th-century ideas of what a cadenza should be. Kreisler’s is most often played, but it is a Romantic display cadenza and for me it has little to do with the underlying Classical drama of the concerto.
Remarkably Beethoven, unlike Kreisler, never lets the second subject enter his cadenza. Only afterwards is the protagonist allowed to sing out the melody freely all alone for the first time, supported sweetly by the pizzicato of the strings playing the timpani motif from the opening. For me that is the holiest moment in the piece.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING