Musical no man’s lands

Two violin concertos fail to inspire

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Writing a violin concerto is no easy matter. Look no further than Beethoven, who composed just the one and turned it into all-out war between soloist and orchestra. Other romantic-era composers took note and never attempted a second concerto — or, if they did, never succeeded. Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Sibelius, Elgar put all they had to say in one violin concerto. The stock of concertos has remained small as a result, and not for want of trying. Every few months, an ambitious violinist will retrieve a lost score from oblivion in the hope of increasing the supply.

The Belgian Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931), a legendary violinist, made two early attempts — a Poème for violin and orchestra and a full-blown violin concerto. Both have been unearthed by the French virtuoso Philippe Graffin and recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. 

The results are agreeable, but that’s as far as it goes. After a few minutes of ticking off themes by Mendelssohn and Brahms, the works meander into a no man’s land where the listener can detect neither purpose nor personality. There is nothing wrong with these scores except a lack of urgency. Maybe that’s why Ysaye left them to be finished by other hands.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), a powerful pianist and mighty intellectual, was an imposing composer of orchestral works. But when he tried to write a violin concerto in the same D-major key as Brahms he fell head-first into an imitative trap. His line of argument is enticing and the instrumental test considerable. There is even an English folksong in the opening movement. But no sooner does the piece start to flow than the shadow of Brahms falls heavy on the hand and Busoni beats a retreat. Francesca Dego plays beautifully for 23 minutes, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska. They follow up with the Brahms concerto which, even in an under-characterised performance, eclipses all that went before. So it goes.

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