The Top Ten Violin Concertos of All Time

by ttucker23 on October 24, 2007

My list of the ten greatest violin concertos is a highly personal choice, and subject to amendment depending on: my mood, glorious new recordings, or a particularly brilliant live performance. However, I think I’ve listed the very best examples of the form here (although leaving out Bruch, Szymanowski and Bartok wasn’t easy).

1. Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61

Noble, serene and perfectly balanced, this greatest of all violin concertos is a wonderful example of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ of composition. His command of form is masterful, and yet there is an overall tranquillity in this piece that is less often associated with Beethoven.
Hear it: Lying in the shade in a field on a beautiful summer’s day.
Best recorded version: Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Eugen Jochum (conductor)

[Above] Beethoven Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by Yehudi Menuin.

2. Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto for 2 violins in D minor, BWV 1043

My composition teacher used to describe the first movement of this concerto as ‘really swinging’ (in the jazz sense), and indeed it does motor along. But the heart and soul of this timeless masterpiece is, in my view, the most sublime piece of music ever written – the transcendent second movement Largo.
Hear it: In a large cathedral.
Best recorded version: Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), English Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

[Above] Bach Double Violin Concerto, 2nd movement, played by Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze.

3. Joannes Brahms, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77

One of the best examples of Brahms’s grand lyricism. Herbert Foss aptly described this giant of the repertoire as ‘a song for the violin on a symphonic scale’.
Hear it: Floating down your favourite river.
Best recorded version: Nigel Kennedy (violin), London Philharmonic, Klaus Tennstedt (conductor)

[Above] Brahms Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by Henryk Szeryng.

4. Jean Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

This is the most recorded and performed violin concerto of any written in the 20th century, and it’s easy to see why it maintains its popularity with audiences and performers worldwide. The technical challenges on the soloist are thrilling without ever becoming empty flamboyant gestures, and the pace never lets up to the final bar.
Hear it: At the top of a mountain.
Best recorded version: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner (conductor)

[Above] Sibelius Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by David Oistrakh.

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K216

Mozart’s five violin concertos were all written before his 20th birthday, and although they never reach the genius of his mature piano concertos, they are wonderfully assured pieces, particularly numbers 3-5. These last three all deserve a place in the top ten, but today I’m opting for No. 3, for its freshness, abundant vitality, and that heart-wrenching Adagio, which is among Mozart’s most beautiful.
Hear it: Cycling through the countryside.
Best recorded version: Yehudi Menuin (violin), Bath Festival Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai (conductor)

[Above] Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3, 1st movement, played by Isaac Stern.

6. Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D

As Robert Layton said in A Guide to the Concerto, ‘They are unmusical feet indeed that do not respond on hearing the (Stravinsky) Violin Concerto’. Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpiece is suffused with the joys of dance and song, and full of imagination.
Hear it: In a late-night lock-in at your favourite pub.
Best recorded version: Kyung Wha Chung (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn (conductor)

[Above] Stravinsky Violin Concerto, 4th movement, played by Kyung Wha Chung.

7. Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19

Who would not be seduced by the enchanting spells that pervade this most original and distinctive of violin concertos? Ethereal, magical and totally beguiling.
Hear it: On awakening in a strange forest.
Best recorded version: Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

[Above] Prokofiev Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by Vadim Repin.

8. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

On paper, an atonal serial work written for a youthful dead relative doesn’t sound promising. But somehow Berg manages to make complex schematic music that reaches extraordinary emotional depths. There is no more universally appealing 12-tone music in the repertoire, and this concerto’s sustained ambiguities make it one of the most profound compositions of the 20th century.
Hear it: In a graveyard at night, lit by 23 candles.
Best recorded version: Itzhak Perlman (violin), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

[Above] Berg Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by Frederieke Saeijs at the Long-Thibaud competition prize winners gala in Paris, 2005.

9. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35

The ultimate romantic concerto, in all senses of the word. With its passionate outpouring of sinuous melody and sumptuous harmonies, and its highly spirited finale, it’s no wonder this is a perennial favourite in the repertoire.
Hear it: At a candle-lit dinner with your loved one.
Best recorded version: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner (conductor)

[Above] Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, 1st movement, played by Jascha Heifetz.

10. Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 99

One of the most diverse concertos in terms of mood. From the dreamy introspective nocturne to the twisted jollity of the scherzo, this is some of Shoctakovich’s most enigmatic music. As so often with Shostakovich, it’s hard to know what is meant by it all, but there is no doubt that this is a composition of huge emotional depth and invention.
Hear it
: In your own carriage on the overnight Trans-Siberian express.
Best recorded version: Maxim Vengerov (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor)

[Above] Shostakovich Violin Concerto, 3rd movement, played by Leonid Kogan.


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