A magical Reunion – 2013 Dvorák Violin Concert

“Truly original, tuneful and aimed at good violinists” Dvorák Violin Concerto

The genesis of Dvorák’s Violin Concerto is complicated. Brahms had recommended the Czech composer to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who in the wake of the successful publication of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances in 1879 asked the latter to write a violin concerto that was to be “truly original, tuneful and aimed at good violinists”. As a “good violinist”, Simrock was almost certainly thinking of Joseph Joachim, who with the exception of Pablo de Sarasate was the most famous violinist of his day.

Two years earlier Joachim had premièred Brahms’s Violin Concerto and on this later occasion, too, he was invited to work on the score, even though Dvorák was himself a fine violinist. The great soloist reacted to the copy of the score that Dvorák sent him by insisting on far-reaching changes, which Dvorák was happy to implement. According to his own account, he retained the themes of the original but otherwise rewrote the concerto: “I haven’t kept a single bar.” But Joachim then took two years to react to this second version of the work, a delay that Anne-Sophie Mutter finds utterly inexplicable. “I don’t know if the two men’s work together was harmonious. Did the piece gain in transparency as a result of these revisions? It’s certainly the case that Dvorák notated the orchestral part in an almost permanent pianissimo. Did the revised orchestration allow greater scope for the violin? I doubt it.” But there is no doubt that the appeal of this emotionally charged score lies in the way in which the orchestra holds the violin in a permanent, harmonically delightful embrace. Be that as it may, Joachim continued to complain about “the extremely thick orchestral accompaniment against which not even the fullest tone would prevail.” Simrock was finally able to publish the work in 1883, but Joachim, to whom the work is dedicated, never played it in public. The soloist at the Prague première on 14 October 1883 was the young Czech violinist František Ondrícek, who did much to help the concerto achieve its international breakthrough.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, too, believes that the concerto is unusually compactly scored. “It demands a fine sense of balance on the part of the orchestra and a very real ability to ensure the translucency of the orchestral textures, even if today’s soloists are better able to assert themselves thanks to the use of steel strings. The concerto is demanding, but not ungrateful. The key of A minor lends the violin a natural brilliance in terms of overtones, the use of open strings and the radiance of the sound in general. It was according to this particular gauge of effectiveness that Dvorák composed the concerto, for all that he also attempted to invest it with a number of folklike elements. There are passages that lie extremely well for the violin, but others, of course, that unfold in the instrument’s highest register. After a short orchestral fanfare the violin is present from the very beginning. Basically it is the Queen of Night who is heard singing here, without any chance to warm up. By the high E and A you should already have overcome your fear of heights.”

Among the work’s unusual features are not only the soloist’s entry in the first movement, which dispenses with the classic orchestral introduction, but the whole of its formal design. “In general, the concerto tries to break with formal expectations and create something new, perhaps also to move away from the shadow of the Brahms concerto. The main theme of the opening movement is endlessly varied, and the same is true of the final movement, with its unusual juxtaposition of 3/8- and 2/4-time-signatures. In the middle we hear the slow dumka theme, very tender and somewhat melancholy, before the movement plunges us back into a wild folk dance. With this rondo finale Dvorák created a witty stylization of the furiant, which is characterized by its permanent metrical shifts. The contrast between an ebullient Bohemian folk dance and the vaguely plaintive dumka is just one more example of the concerto’s wonderful melodic variety. 

Anne-Sophie Mutter is convinced that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto exerted a particular influence on the structure of the movements of Dvorák’s concerto, too. “The directness of the violin’s first entry is unusual for this period, but this is just one aspect among many. The mini-recapitulation in the opening movement, followed immediately by the wonderful transition to the songlike Adagio, is very unusual but you find something similar in Mendelssohn. I genuinely hear in this work a kind of successor to Mendelssohn’s concerto, albeit an original piece that certainly does not obey classical concerto form in terms of its overall structure.”

Why has Anne- Sophie Mutter waited until this relatively late date to record the Dvorák concerto? “There have been periods when I have been passionate about Dvorák, and the concerto has repeatedly been on my wish list, but other projects have got in the way. With many of the works that have been close to my heart since childhood – Mozart and Beethoven, above all – I now find that I have to a certain extent made my peace, and I should now like to devote myself to a repertory that is performed less often. The Dvorák concerto has become increasingly important to me in recent years. The time had come to record it, no doubt in part because of the Berlin Philharmonic and Manfred Honeck. They were ideal partners with whom to get to the heart of this splendid work. To make another recording with this orchestra after thirty years has stirred many wonderful memories. One cannot wish for more sensitive and at the same time more passionate musical partners – inspired by the wonderful conductor Manfred Honeck.”

The element of Bohemian folk music is a d m it t e d ly important with Dvorák, but Anne-Sophie Mutter has no wish to privilege it at the expense of other aspects. Rather, she sees a magnificent link not only with the Romance op. 11 that Dvorák completed in 1877 on the basis of the Andante from an early string quartet but also with the striking Mazurek op. 49. “They embody two important elements in Dvorák’s output: the wonderfully cantabile Romance embodies the element of song, while the Mazurek represents the folk dance. These may be occasional works written on the spur of the moment, and there is no trace of the shadow of the composer’s great friend Brahms in either of them. Dvorák is entirely at home here in his very own musical language.”

Oswald Beaujean Translation: Stewart Spencer

August 2013

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