Sibelius: Violin Concerto

The Finnish Violinist Sibelius was 38 years old when he completed this, his only example of the Concerto form, in the Summer of 1903. It was written for and dedicated to Willy Burmester, leader of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and one of the most highly regarded soloists of his day.

At the time Sibelius’ finances and a tendency to heavy drinking bouts were causing him domestic concern, and this seemed to impinge on the concerto’s premiere. This was not undertaken by the dedicatee, but by Victor Novacek, who could not cope with the extremely difficult solo part, and the orchestra too had problems of its own.

The outcome of this fiasco was that Sibelius revised the work which received its first airing in Berlin with Karel Halir as soloist and none other than Richard Strauss conducting. The reception may be described as having been lukewarm, but it is this version that has come down to us, and today this Concerto is as popular as it has ever been.

The character of the concerto may be described, by turn, as rhapsodic, lyrical, extremely rhythmic, tender but with gritty dissonances, which together create a unique example of the Violin Concerto genre. The execution of this work not only demands extreme virtuosity but also physical stamina, as the whole compass of the violin becomes engaged. Many a soloist has taken a bow with the hairs of the violin bow hanging in shreds.

1st Movement Allegro Moderato

The movement opens with divided and muted tremoloing strings and the soloist enters in the fourth bar with the first subject, a lyrical theme yet taut; an early delightful touch is the clarinets early imitation. Soloist and orchestra work upon this early material with the solo violin’s music becoming more fluid, until a passage of “sixths” leads into the movement’s first cadenza. This in turn leads into a rugged orchestral tutti containing the elements of the “rhapsodic” second subject which is taken up “Largemente” by the soloist yet again in sixths, its beauty enhanced by an ostinato counter melody from the lower strings. This episode is brought to an end with the theme decorated with grace notes and sustained trills leading directly into the second orchestral tutti, Allegro Molto, the movement’s pithy, rugged, third theme. There is perhaps also a chill wind in this tutti evoking Finland’s lakes, pine forest and tundra.

As chilling winds die away, the soloist re-emerges into warmer climes with a bravado passage which leads via a re-iteration in part of the first theme (subject) which in turn leads into the movements principle cadenza based on the first subject. With the Cadenza almost exhausted, the final two bars of which are marked “ravvivando”, wherefrom the spirits are revived into the movements development marked Allegro Moderato.

The development commences with the first subject low in the orchestral register, with the bassoons, and a filigree of semi-quavers from the soloist above who takes over the theme. The development continues with a further orchestral tutti, and out of its climax the lyrical rhapsodic second theme emerges again low down in the orchestra to be joined by the soloist who contributes further development in the violin’s upper register.

With a change of key, D minor, Sibelius introduces a diminution of the third theme and, with a falling grace note enhanced passage, sustains trills over sustained orchestral chords leads into the Coda (Allegro Molto Vivace). The movement ends in a thrilling “tour de force”.

2nd Movement Adagio di Molto

This beautiful contemplative movement is opened by the clarinets in thirds followed likewise by oboes, French horns and timpani. The soloist’s entry at Bar 6 low on the G string is somewhat sonorous, but an interesting augmented 4th in the 9th bar seems to lift any veil of dourness about the proceedings. Underpinning the soloist is a syncopated orchestral accompaniment which is to continue long after the completion of the soloist’s thematic statement and continues to accompany a passionate reprise for full orchestra of the movement’s opening motif.

As the pulsating, throbbing orchestral rhythm continues, the Soloist re-enters with a brief paraphrase in part, in rather complex triplet figuration with counterpoint.

The movement develops with the orchestra re-iterating the thematic material with the soloist while, delighting in weaving his own magic, high above, until a beautiful, haunting Coda, where, soloist and orchestra bring the movement to a close with clear brief glimpses of the thematic motifs.

3rd Movement Allegro Ma Non Tanto (Me Marcato Sempre)

It was not until the late 1930s that this Concerto began to be accepted into our concert repertoire, largely championed by the late Jascha Heifitz. Earlier the distinguished scholar Sir Donald Tovey had described this movement, rather unkindly, as a “Polonaise for Polar bears”, which tended to reflect reactionary opinion current some eighty years ago.

This movement falls into five distinct sections; D major, G minor, D major, D minor and D major.

The four opening bars could only have been devised by Sibelius, violas, cellos, basses and timpani stress the rhythmic figure. With the entry of the soloist marked “energico” the orchestral forces are still of “chamber music” proportions and the whole sweeps along with great energy and eventually modulates into G minor for a bravura orchestral interlude. Do we not hear the first cry of wild birds in the woodwind before the soloist’s re-entry? And back in D major, the orchestra takes over the opening theme against a flurry of triplets, while the soloist virtually explores the whole range of the violin.

A brief second orchestral interlude leads the soloist back to the theme, now one and a half tones higher, the first rung of the ladder to lift it even higher. And so back into D minor, where fluid rising arpeggios from the soloist lead the orchestra into its third interlude, the opening theme still dominating. The soloist and orchestra now sweep on, the soloist exploring all the possibilities of the movement’s theme with harmonies and complicated double and triple stopping, and the orchestra, hinting at the theme with a rhythmic (which has now become) an “ostinato” accompaniment.

With a slackening of dynamics the D major Coda is reached, and then with undiminished drive and virtuosity and with a full orchestral chord on the second beat of the third bar before the end, a chord which seems, in the humble opinion of the writer of these notes, to trip up the music into a truncated ending.