Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor

There’s a distinguished list of violin concertos that comprises a part of the standard repertoire for great players – most play them all.  Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sebelius, Mendelssohn. Plenty of other notable concertos exist – Mozart’s 5, Max Bruch, the modern Russians.  I’m not sure why, but aside from Mozart many of these great composers only wrote one violin concerto – Mendelssohn more or less falls into that category, except it turns out he also wrote one when he was 12 years old that was re-discovered in the 1950s.  But when people talk about the Mendelssohn they are talking about his Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, which made its debut in 1845.

Mendelssohn dedicated his concerto to friend Ferdinand David, with whom he consulted heavily on its composition.  It’s quite common for the great composers to have worked with a great violinist to develop their concertos and other works for violin.  Wikipedia reports that Mendelssohn’s was one of the first violin concertos that spelled out the cadenza for the performer – it had been more customary in the past to allow the violinist to improvise.  Mendelssohn started a trend; future composers would be as prescriptive as he was.

The first movement of the work launches right into its main theme, and movements one and two flow together with no pause – they are bridged with notes from a lone bassoon.  Movement two goes into three quite quickly as well, denying audiences a chance to applaud between movements, which in Mendelssohn’s day would have been a surprise for listeners.  Another innovation is that several parts for the solo instrument seem to support the orchestra by harmonizing with it, turning the violin into a backup instrument from time to time.  To my ear, the concerto ranges from serious to playful, and well-explores the range of what the violin can do.

I’ve come to greatly appreciate the work – yesterday I listened to performances by Shoji Sayaka and Anne-Sophie Mutter.  Here’s Shoji Sayaka in Russia in 2013:

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

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