Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto: An Autumnal Requiem

At first, Alban Berg was reluctant to accept the commission for what would become one of the twentieth century’s greatest violin concertos. When the Ukrainian-born, American violinist Louis Krasner approached Berg in February, 1935 with an enticing offer of $1,500, the Austrian composer was hard at work on the opera, Lulu. He even declared that he was “not a violin composer.” Although Berg began to take tentative steps towards the Violin Concerto, the …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto: Daniil Trifonov in Concert

One hundred and ten years ago today, on November 4, 1909, Sergei Rachmaninov made his American debut with a recital at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In the weeks that followed, the 36-year-old composer appeared in cities including Philadelphia and New York, where he premiered the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor—newly written for the tour—with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. The American tour came at a time when Rachmaninov was cutting …

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Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto: Monumental and Heroic

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto begins with a bold and unexpected announcement. Four chords in the orchestra, outlining the most elemental harmonic progression (I-IV-V-I), stand as mighty pillars. Each initiates an expansive cadenza from the solo piano. A cadenza at the beginning of a concerto? This is not what the first audiences would have been expecting. These first bars establish the piano as a heroic, convention-defying protagonist. The orchestra launches into the expected introduction only …

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Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto: Khatia Buniatishvili in Concert

Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto begins with a hauntingly romantic melody. We hear it first in the solo clarinet, accompanied by a woodwind chorale. For a composer whose music is often filled with larger-than-life virtuoso bravura, these quiet opening bars seem surprisingly unassuming, perhaps even lamenting. They open the door to the magic and mystery of the piano’s entrance a moment later, in which the melody is outlined in arpeggios which seem …

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Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto: A Voyage to Exotic Lands

We often associate musical exoticism with Claude Debussy and other French impressionists. In this music, the Eastern sounds and scales of the Javanese gamelan, famously introduced at the 1889 Paris Exposition, waft into a colorful, new dreamscape. Yet tantalizing glimpses of this bold, new musical landscape emerge, surprisingly, in the Fifth Piano Concerto of another French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was born a generation before Debussy. The young, rebellious Debussy considered Saint-Saëns’ music to …

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Remembering Aaron Rosand

The American violinist Aaron Rosand passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92. Rosand has been described as “one of the last living connections to the golden age of violinists.” Following an April, 1970 recital, Harold C. Schonberg, longtime critic at The New York Times, wrote that “Romanticism on the violin had a rebirth last night in Carnegie Hall.” Long revered within the music community, Aaron Rosand undoubtedly deserved greater name recognition among the wider public. …

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Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto: “The Heart’s Jewel”

In 1906, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim offered an assessment of what remain four major pillars of the solo violin repertoire: The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s. Indeed, Felix Mendelssohn’s …

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