14 Nov 2019

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Op 61

From Music Alive, 8:02 pm on 14 November 2019

Five strokes on the timpani announce Beethoven's intention to be daring and innovative in his only violin concerto.

Violinist Ning Feng

Violinist Ning Feng Photo: Lawrence Tsang

Beethoven's concerto was groundbreaking in its breadth and construction and left some in his audience behind, one critic writing: "The judgment of connoisseurs is unanimous; the many beauties of the piece must be conceded, but it must also be admitted that the continuity is often completely broken and that the endless repetitions of certain commonplace passages might easily become tedious to the listener....It is to be feared that if Beethoven continues upon this path he and the public will fare badly."

The concerto was written for the Austrian virtuoso violinist, Franz Clement whose path had first crossed Beethoven's in 1794 when the composer added his scrawl to the 13 year-old prodigy's souvenir book.

The Concerto's story goes that Beethoven was pushed for time, completing it at the eleventh hour. This lead to Clement (in the most dramatic tellings) sight-reading the concerto onstage, though clearer-eyed historians wonder if he'd at least dropped by to see the work's progress as the performance approached. It seems certain though that there was no time to rehearse with the orchestra, although this appears not to have detracted from the soloist's performance – one review noting "the beloved local violinist Clement ... played with his usual elegance and lustre."

Clement also tossed in a spot of show-boating between the first and second movements, turning his violin upside-down and knocking out a couple of his own works.

The concerto famously begins with five notes on the timpani that softly declare Beethoven's intention to develop the work in a symphonic fashion, and that pulsing motif can be heard throughout the rest of the movement.

After the premiere, Beethoven amended and improved the work, however it remained largely out of sight and it was only in the hands of another virtuoso that it took the place in the repertoire it enjoys today.

Joseph Joachim first performed it when he was 13 with Felix Mendelssohn conducting and it was Joachim's promotion and dedication that ensured its popularity.

Programme note by Kevin Keys

Recorded by RNZ in Auckland Town Hall, 14 November 2019
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay