Northern Lights over Finland © Finnish Tourist Board
Northern Lights over Finland
© Finnish Tourist Board
2015 marks the 150th birthdays of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two giants of Nordic classical music. Born 22 years after the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, the Danish Nielsen and Finnish Sibelius came to represent the peak of the Nordic late romantic aesthetic at the turn of the century. Though their collective anniversary offers many opportunities to explore the lesser-known works of these composers, it will also provide a chance to rediscover their most popular compositions in a new context.

Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius
Alongside their perennially popular symphonies, their respective violin concertos are among their most often-performed works. Following a lineage of remarkable German violin concertos starting with those of Bach and going through those of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bruch to end with Brahms’ monumental concerto in 1878, the successive generation of mid-to-late Romantic composers chose to focus their attention instead on the symphony. The few prominent works for violin and orchestra in the last 20 years of the 19th century tended to be shorter showpieces, including those by Pablo de Sarasate and Camille Saint-Saëns. It wasn’t until 1904, with the concertos of Sibelius and Alexander Glazunov, that the popularity of the violin concerto took off again; these two major concertos were soon followed by those of Bartók, Nielsen, Szymanowski and Elgar all within the following ten years. These concertos, however, were quite distinct from the formal structure of the preceding German concertos: the new generation of violin concertos tended to be shorter, denser, and with less of an emphasis on pure soloistic virtuosity.

Sibelius’ only concerto was written in 1904 for the German virtuoso Willy Burmester, a student of Joseph Joachim. Due to financial reasons, however, the première was given instead in Finland, with Victor Nováček as soloist. That first performance was not a success, partially due to the last-minute nature of Sibelius’ composition process, compounded with the fact that Nováček was unable to cope with the concerto’s considerable technical demands. Sibelius decided to withhold the concerto from publication to make some substantial edits, and the revised version known today premiered in 1905 with Karel Halíř as the soloist and Richard Strauss conducting.

This latter fact perhaps signifies the key to the concerto’s popularity: departing from the traditional concerto form, Sibelius instead composed something closer to the orchestral tone poems Strauss was composing at the exact same time. The orchestra is given unusual prominence throughout the concerto, moving beyond their previous role of simply serving as a transitionary passage or introducing the musical themes of the movement. This is most evident in the three extended orchestral passages in the first movement (2:45, 5:45 and 11:54), which certainly compare to Sibelius’ symphonies in terms of scope, virtuosity and sheer volume. Another example of the orchestra’s prominence comes at the climax of the second movement, in which the full orchestra, marked tutta forza, restates a theme introduced by the violin at the very beginning of the movement while the soloist simply plays an ascending B flat major scale in octaves (23:25).

Vadim Repin © Gela Megrelidze | CAMI
Vadim Repin
© Gela Megrelidze | CAMI
The technical demands on the soloist, too, are varied in scope and difficulty. One of the more interesting aspects of Sibelius’ writing for the violin is in its innovative use of novel techniques alongside more traditional virtuoso passages. Since the early concertos of Bach and Vivaldi, nearly every violin concerto has contained sixteenth-note arpeggiated runs as an accompaniment to an orchestral solo instrument, and the Sibelius is no exception (21:29). The use of fast spiccato arpeggios at the end of the first movement is straight out of Mendelssohn (or perhaps the first Paganini Caprice) (15:47), and the infamous up-bow staccato thirds (or down-bow staccato if the soloist is feeling particularly brave – in this performance Vadim Repin decides to combine both!) in the third movement are highly reminiscent of Sarasate’s showpieces (26:40). However, the dense chords heard later in the third movement (27:49) certainly had not been used to that extent in earlier violin concertos, not to mention the icy, nearly inaudible entrance in the first movement miles away from the assertive opening statements of Beethoven and Brahms (0:10). Many of these elements are found in later concertos, such as those by Shostakovich, Bartók and Prokofiev. While its status as one of the great Romantic masterpieces in the violin repertoire cannot be disputed, Sibelius’ innovations in form, orchestration, and technique should not be forgotten either.

Nielsen’s Violin Concerto has never shared the same popularity as the Sibelius. Composed in 1911 while Nielsen was staying in Norway with Nina Grieg, the concerto’s première in 1912 was a massive success both for Nielsen and Peder Møller, the soloist. Compared with the lush late Romanticism of Sibelius’ concerto, Nielsen instead opted for a spiky, dazzling neoclassical work predating Stravinsky’s more famous neoclassical phase ten years later.

Unlike Sibelius, Nielsen rejected the standard three-movement form found in nearly all preceding violin concertos. In fact, the structure of Nielsen’s concerto is still debated, with some describing it as a four-movement concerto and others preferring to see it in two large movements, each with a slow and fast section. Either way, the concerto is split into four major sections, with a slow-fast-slow-fast form reminiscent of the Baroque concerto grosso. The concerto starts off with an extended Praeludium, dramatic and declamatory in style. Though the orchestra starts with a series of sustained tones in clear deference to the cadenza-like solo line, a charming dotted melody in the orchestra (2:24) leads to a lyrical, wandering melody in the violin.

Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen
This slowly builds up in intensity to an accented, almost violent climax in which violin and orchestra exchange 32nd-note triplets and 64th note runs in the violin’s lower register (4:42). The jolly second movement, marked Allegro cavalleresco, is deceptively simple; its main theme, which could have been lifted straight out of Mozart, takes all sorts of harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns. The centerpiece of the movement is the extended cadenza (13:12), reminiscent simultaneously of Bach’s fugues for solo violin as well as the cadenza from the first movement of Sibelius’ concerto. The movement ends with a bravura triplet passage, again evocative of Classical violin writing, but a series of modulating chords brings the movement to a rather startling finish (19:46).

The following movement, marked Poco adagio is perhaps the most unconventional. Beginning like the Sibelius concerto’s second movement with woodwind solos, the lyrical solo line develops rather unexpectedly into a chromatic, almost expressionist passage (22:14). This then develops into a broad, legato melody marked ‘sul G’ (24:10) that not only references the dotted melody heard in the first movement, but also draws strongly from a similar passage in the second movement of Beethoven’s concerto. This leads seamlessly into the third movement (27:25) – again, like the concertos of Beethoven and Mozart, a rustic rondo in triple meter. Though the melody is clearly draws on the simplicity of the classical era, it is highly chromatic and does not sit comfortably in one tonality. Nielsen heightens this effect by utilizing a kaleidoscopic number of key changes, going through B flat major to D major to A major before finally arriving back in D major for an extended cadenza (33:20). Beginning with a series of scales accompanied by timpani, this cadenza is even more dazzling than the first, ranging from left-hand pizzicati to double-stopped trills to high harmonics. Following a return of the rondo theme (37:05), the soloist’s delicate, understated coda is underlined with a series of slightly dissonant chords in the orchestra, before ending with a triumphant D major chord.

Why, then, has the Nielsen suffered in popularity compared with the Sibelius? A large part of this is due to its immense technical difficulty. Though Nielsen was a violinist himself, his concerto is full of awkward chords and unexpected harmonies even when compared with Sibelius’ more overtly virtuosic writing. Its length, too, has often been seen as a drawback, with its wandering chromaticisms and spare orchestration packing less of an emotional punch than Sibelius’ highly concentrated, orchestrally dense writing. Moreover, the whole genre of the neoclassical violin concerto has never been popular, if the neglect of those by Stravinsky and Hindemith are anything to go by. Fortunately, an increasing number of violinists have started to champion the concerto, most notably Nikolaj Znaider, Vilde Frang and James Ehnes.

As the dual anniversaries of Sibelius and Nielsen begin, there should be ample opportunity to rethink our commonly held perceptions about these two master composers. Their two violin concertos provide a fascinating insight as to how each managed the balance between innovation and tradition, both within the bounds of violin writing and also through a broader musical lens.

© SeppVei
© SeppVei