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Work of the Week – Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor is a well-established piece in the solo violin repertoire. This month alone, the work will be performed by four different orchestras: on 11 December by the Kodály Philharmonic Debrecen in Budapest, on 11 and 12 by the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal as well as the Rotterdam Student Orkest and finally on 18 December by the Badische Philharmonie Pforzheim.

The Concerto begins with a quiet, foggy soundscape of muted tremolo strings, over which the mysterious melody of the solo violin emerges, expressivity outlining the first themes of the movement. Sibelius conceived this effective opening while travelling in 1901, in what was the beginning of an inspired compositional process. Sibelius had aspired to be a virtuoso violinist himself for many years and the Violin Concerto is the largest work he composed for his own instrument. However, many passages of the Concerto are likely to have exceeded Sibelius’ own abilities, for instance the prolonged cadenza in the first movement containing highly demanding double stops.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto – Warmth in a Nordic winter

By and large, Sibelius adheres to the traditional concerto structure of three movements. In the second movement, ‘Adagio’, the orchestra evokes the melancholy of a gloomy Scandinavian Winter, which is mitigated by the warm tone of the solo violin. Thematically connected to the Adagio, the work’s finale is a virtuosic Rondo making use of extended technique with a relentlessly pounding pulse in three-quarter time.

[Sibelius] stays up all night, plays beautifully, cannot let go of the enchanted notes. It’s incredible how many ideas he has. And all his motives are so ripe for development, so full of life. – Aino Sibelius

The Violin Concerto was premiered under the direction of the composer on 8 February 1904. Although Sibelius had intended Willy Burmester to perform as soloist, Burmester was replaced by the alledgedly overworked Viktor Nováèek. Perhaps in consequence, critical reactions were mixed. Some lauded the richness of the Concerto’s ideas, while others criticized it as being too unclear in its development and too technically demanding. Sibelius was unhappy with this reception and revised the work, reducing its dissonances and simplifying the solo part.

Schott Music now represents the publisher Robert Linau internationally, making many great works by Jean Sibelius, Carl Maria von Weber, and others a valuable part of the Schott catalogue. Performance material for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto can by hired from Schott in the 1905 revised version and the original 1904 version, which was only made available for performance in 2015.



Photo: San­teri Levas