"What a giftless bastard!" It’s safe to say that Tchaikovsky was not a big fan of Brahms’ music. But while we usually take opposing sides of the War of the Romantics, when we considered our top ten violin concertos, an easy truce was agreed. Sorry, Johannes, but when it comes to violin concertos, Pyotr Ilyich was victorious.

In fact, the real challenge facing us in composing our list was not what to include, but what to leave out. Controversially, the big beasts of classical music – Bach, Mozart and Beethoven – don’t find a place here: undoubtedly great works, but just not our favourites, so don’t write in to complain...

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IDAGIO playlist


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 

We were in complete agreement over our winner: Tchaikovsky was always one to wear his heart on his sleeve and his thrilling violin concerto was practically a love letter to Iosif Kotek, the young violinist with whom the composer was infatuated. The meditative Canzonetta (a replacement for the original slow movement) finds the violin engaging in tender exchanges with the woodwinds, and then there are plenty of virtuoso pyrotechnic moments in the Cossack dance finale.


2Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47

The icy chill of the opening to Sibelius’ concerto is enough to give Elisabeth the shivers – in a  good way! – truly atmospheric. The central movement, introduced by woodwinds, is full of yearning, while Mark loves the finale, which Sir Donald Tovey described as “a polonaise for polar bears” – surely one of the very best musical descriptions!


3Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major Op 35

For Mark, Korngold’s concerto is pure Hollywood schmaltz: a big, romantic throwback to fin-de-siècle Vienna, syrupy rich in tone. Elisabeth prefers to think of it as an Apfelstrudel – with its crunchy edges , cinnamon spice, the acidity of the apples and long legato lines stretched like the pastry. [Ed: What is it with you two and food?]


Felix Mendelssohn
4Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 

For Mark, Mendelssohn’s E minor concerto has an evergreen freshness, its elfen finale owing something to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in spirit. Elisabeth finds something much sadder here – a young man’s search for love and happiness which doesn’t arrive until the finale. She finds the fragility of the central movement especially touching.


5Bruch: Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor Op.26

Max Bruch composed three violin concertos, but his G minor First is the only one to achieve popular acclaim (although the Scottish Fantasy gets the occasional outing). The First is, in many ways, the archetypal Romantic concerto which perhaps draws out the cynic in each of us. Elisabeth hears loneliness in the opening solo while it’s the tempestuousness which draws Mark in. After a heart-wrenching Adagio, is the finale a happy ending (Mark) or a false dawn (Elisabeth)?


6Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major Op.77

Disagreement creeps in at No.6 in our list: Johannes Brahms. Mark confesses (at his peril!) that he finds the long first movement just a bit stodgy and Germanic... the very reasons Elisabeth loves it! For her, Brahms is an autumnal comfort blanket, the tender Adagio like the first rays of sunlight kissing your forehead. But, wonders Mark, surely the concerto’s dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, must have been miffed that the tender soliloquy is initially played by the oboe and not the violin? The rollicking finale is terrific, like one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.


Philip Glass
© Raymond Meier
7Glass: Violin Concerto no. 1

A controversial choice, perhaps, but Philip Glass’ First Violin Concerto has long been a favourite of Mark’s and Elisabeth has become a fan. It’s easy to get caught up in the loop of Glass’ minimalism. The pulsing chords and chugging rhythms – especially the way the finale motors along – are hypnotic, demanding full attention. The concerto was originally conceived in five movements for soloist Paul Zukofsky, but was written very much with the composer’s father in mind: “Let me write a piece that my father would have liked”.



8Glazunov: Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82

Mark just had to sneak in a second Russian concerto into the list, making cases for Prokofiev 2 and Khachaturian, but it was Glazunov’s which charmed Elisabeth. Perhaps it was the Russian melancholy of the first movement that did the trick, or the dark, introverted cadenza. The finale, though, is the violin equivalent of a coloratura soprano aria… it sparkles, with glittering left-hand pizzicato, almost sounding like a balalaika.


Antonio Vivaldi
9Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in E minor RV 273

Stravinsky famously scoffed that “Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos; he wrote one concerto 500 times.” Now this is extremely unfair of Igor; there’s so much wit and wild invention in the Red Priest’s music (admission time: we both prefer Vivaldi to Bach!). Mark feels that Vivaldi’s reputation does suffer through his prolific output though: with nearly 250 violin concertos to choose from most people would pick one of The Four Seasons or, at least, a concerto with a nickname. So we’ve deliberately gone for one without a soubriquet: the E minor RV 273 is a gem: there’s a frisson of dramatic suspense in the outer movements and the central Largo will speak to people who’ve ever wandered along Venice’s narrow alleyways in December, shrouded under a sinister mist.


10Paganini: Violin Concerto no.2 in B minor Op.7 

We had to include a concerto by one of the great virtuosos of the 19th century. Niccolò Paganini was such a gifted player that it was rumoured he had sold his soul to the devil. Of his compositions, the Second Violin Concerto is perhaps the best, concluding with the dazzling virtuosity of La campanella, so called because of the bell-like chimes which precede the return of the rondo theme. Elisabeth feels it’s like an invitation to a ball.


Which concertos would make your top ten? Have we omitted your favourite?