Jascha Heifetz, violin; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony
By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 20, 2009
Franz Clement may not have been as great a violinist as Ludwig van Beethoven was a composer, but he was quite the celebrity in 19th century Vienna. He was director of the theater where Beethoven had premiered “Fidelio.” As a composer, he had some success. And as a former prodigy on the violin, he was known for his dazzling showmanship and his ability to memorize great chunks of music without apparent effort.
In the late fall of 1806, the 26-year-old Clement decided to sponsor a benefit concert. The beneficiary: Franz Clement. The program: Handel and Mozart. But Clement needed something more --- an attention-getting premiere. So he asked his 36-year-old friend, Ludwig van Beethoven, to write a violin concerto.
There wasn't much time --- the concert was scheduled for December 23rd --- but Beethoven rose to the challenge. Working with uncommon speed, he is said to have finished his concerto on the day of the performance. Some say that Clement had to sight-read the last movement that night --- and that the ink on his score was still damp.
Beethoven's premiere took second place to Clement's showmanship. The violinist divided the piece, playing part before intermission, part after. Like a forefather of Jimi Hendrix, he performed a fantasia that night with his violin upside-down. In all the theatrics, Beethoven's concerto was easy to overlook --- critics called it common and repetitious.
Between 1806 and 1844, how often was Beethoven's Violin Concerto played?
Beethoven died on March 26th, 1827. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people attended his funeral. Few were aware that Vienna's beloved composer had ever written a concerto for violin.
Almost a decade after Beethoven's death, Felix Mendelssohn brought the piece to the public's attention. He understood what Beethoven had written: the only major work for violin composed since Mozart's 1775 burst of five concertos. This time people heard it for what it was --- probably the greatest violin concerto ever written. [To buy the Beethoven Violin Concerto from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Why the greatness? Simple. This is gorgeous, melodic music, from start to finish. The dark, brooding Beethoven? Not present here. This Beethoven is peaceful. He chooses only the most satisfying harmonies. His colors are bright. And he gives the soloist ample opportunity to shine --- and, in the Rondo, the final movement, opportunity to thrill. No hype: For me, this is the most pleasurable 45 minutes in classical music.
What version to recommend? I grew up on David Oistrakh, but that brilliant recording is no longer available. I appreciate Isaac Stern's interpretation, but understand that it's controversial. Anne-Sophie Mutter made her CD when she was just 16; I don't care how precocious she was, I prefer someone who's had a bit more life experience.
Which leads me, inevitably, to Jascha Heifetz (1900-1987), generally known as “the violinist of the century.” No recording of the Beethoven concerto will ever be “definitive,” but his, made in 1955 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, comes close. Also on this CD: Heifitz's recording of the Mendelssohn --- from 1959, again with Munch and Boston. Heifetz, you should know, was regarded as his generation's greatest interpreter of Mendelssohn; there are those who think his version of Mendelssohn's concerto is superior to his Beethoven.