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The Top Ten Violin Concertos of All Time

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.

{ 73 comments… add one }

  • kris November 10, 2012, 4:47 am

    definitely: (because of a difficulty of interpretation, melody, technicality, tempo, harmonics, and clarity)
    1 wieniawski #1
    2 bruch #1
    3 szymanowski #1
    4 tchaikovsky
    5 brahms
    6 vieuxtemps #5
    7 sibelius
    8 wieniawski #2
    9 paganini #1
    10 beethoven

  • chris November 12, 2012, 12:23 am

    Because of a difficulty of interpretation, melody, technicality, tempo, harmonics, and clarity I say these are definitely the best and the most difficult violin concertos:
    1 wieniawski #1
    2 bruch #1
    3 szymanowski #1
    4 tchaikovsky
    5 brahms
    6 vieuxtemps #5
    7 sibelius
    8 wieniawski #2
    9 paganini #1
    10 beethoven

  • Yari December 2, 2012, 10:54 am

    It should be a top 20 list, and it should include the Mendelssohn, the Bruch, and even the Lark Ascending, which is actually my very favorite. I mean, just listen to Hilary Hahn play it, I get goose bumps every time.

  • beppe draetta January 4, 2013, 6:19 pm

    I find hard to consider a ranking in olympic running race (a matter of material, specific training, drugs, sacrifice), imaging with instrumental concertos!
    Why this unnatural resolution in ranking violin symphonic composition? Each concerto has its own story, peculiarities, emotions and pertains to individual mood, memories and apparently silly influence such as light, fatigue, hunger, libido…
    Some compositions contains more virtuosity, other romanticism or introversion. Should we place these aspects into a rank?
    No friends.
    Maybe we could just state ‘Today my favourite concert is…’

    Mendelsshon, Paganini (6 concertos), both Prokoviev’s! But even Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Beethoven’s phantasies deserve a top place.
    Only one fully shared opinion: nobody considers Schumann’s concerto (the great Schumann!), frankly an unsuccessful composition.
    Last: does anyone knows (and loves) Philip Glass first violin concerto? It’s a masterpiece.
    Beppe, Milano

  • Murpy January 15, 2013, 1:15 am

    Kris/Chris, pick a name spelling and stay with it!

    Personally, I applaud the absence of Wieniawski. I might put Berg #1 on my list, and wonder if The Four Seasons counts (although it might not make my list).

    Beppe, I like Glass’s.

  • John Nickelson February 14, 2013, 12:10 am

    Will somebody please take Alban Berg off this list before I explode! Awful!

  • chris February 23, 2013, 10:52 pm

    Typo error, no big deal Kris=Chris the same, and I would add another monumental work Bruch – concerto #2 in D minor op.44 if possible

  • Chris February 28, 2013, 5:35 am

    kris=chris the same, just a typo error, and will not afffect my list

  • Dave B March 7, 2013, 1:36 am

    I think Mendelssohn should be on the list.

  • chris March 11, 2013, 3:36 am

    Concertos by Wieniawski two sublime masterpieces unparallel in difficulty, beauty, originality and melody, fully understood only by connoisseur, also we talk about concertos not about sonatas, fantasies, etc. let’s stick to the subject. Thanks.
    PS. we should add to the list another monumental work by Bruch his concerto No3 in D minor op58, and what about this one M. Karlowicz violin concerto in A major op8 has anyone heard this brilliant piece? It’s amazing.
    I will appreciate if my comments are posted I am entering this text fourth time.

  • Michael Rajczyk April 6, 2013, 6:47 pm

    ridiculous that you did not include Mendelssohn, or even Bruch for that matter, if the Em is not right after Beethoven, or even right along side it, your list is pure baloney

  • B. Arthur Harten June 19, 2013, 7:38 pm

    A treasure to listening to these concertos as “Masterpeice Paintings” by Rennisance artists in different mediums and moods…..”a snifter of Cognac…relax in a good chair….and listen!……each artist a differentinterpretation and color…manufique !

  • Conor October 14, 2013, 2:51 am

    Thank you for posting this article, I’m making my way throught them on spotify..although currently distracted by Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu.

  • Alberto December 11, 2013, 6:20 pm

    Great list. Just one quesiton, do you know if Jascha Heifetz is playing with the Dolphin Stradivari?

  • Mike December 20, 2013, 3:59 pm

    Does the “Four Seasons” count? It represented a great evolution in the history of music. It has some many textures. I’d put it easily in the top of my list.

    Besides that, I love Bruch’s the first, Sibelius, Paganini’s the first, Tchaikovsky and Brahms.

  • Richard December 24, 2013, 6:31 am

    I really have enjoyed reading your list. I am a Mendelssohn advocate….the way the orchestra re-enters with the melody accompanied but brilliant arpeggiated chords across the four strings (after the opening movement cadenza) is a magical moment in all music.

    People LOVE the Beethoven. I just don’t get it. Right from the get go it is underwhelming. Dong dong dong dong dong dong! Does the orchestra need a count in from the Timp. Then different instruments take it in turns of trading the most uninspired motif in history, monotonal sets of 5 “dongs”. I find the Beethoven too repetitive (and yet I am a fan of the Philip Glass Concerto). Thanks for your list. You have inspired me to have another listen to Beethoven and to expand my listening to the concertos on your list I haven’t previously heard.

  • Behrad January 1, 2014, 8:31 am

    Mendelssohn’s in E minor and Bruch’s in G minor are missing.

  • Behrad January 1, 2014, 8:46 am

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Albert April 8, 2014, 6:19 pm

    Did all of you actually forget Barber?

  • Nick April 27, 2014, 1:35 pm

    Leaving Mendelssohn e minor, Bruch g minor, and Barber off the list is a downright dirty shame. What they sound like is only half of it. To play them is a pleasure.

  • Warwick June 10, 2014, 8:32 am

    @Richard (December 24, 2013, 6:31 am).
    I completely agree with you about Beethoven. I understand that people are intrigued with the ‘musicality’ of the concerto and respect them for that, but overall the violin writing and the concerto parts just seem to meander through second-rate themes.

    The Sibelius Concerto has such great violin writing as well as memorable themes, that for me it ranks as the greatest violin concerto. Sibelius encaptures all his Nordic spirit and the demands on the violinst are some of the earliest examples of modern technique at its best. Powerful, romantic, heavy and concentrated; it is just that much more interesting!

    The Berg concerto is unique and deserves to be ranked in the top tier.

  • garygech June 11, 2014, 2:48 am

    I find that the Big 3 in D have very common complex structures:

    1) Beethoven
    2) Sibelius
    3) Tchaikovsky

    I find the other composers interesting but simply don’t have the power of the big three in D. Shostakovich is interesting, because he lived at the same time as Aaron Copeland who was just a superior composer in nearly every way, and history demonstrates near universal appeal for Copeland, really the last of the composers of the standard repertoire, before classical music would collapse first to Jazz then to Blues then to Rock and Roll, and now to Pop.

    In each of these cases, the Violin shares the stage then overtake the orchestra. All three were great symphonic writers. Beethoven was simply very creative and along with the 9th symphony, his Violin Concerto seems to arrive ethereally. Much like the achievement of the 5th and 9th symphony, the patterns are complex, and each movement is completely original but works together as a group. That is really hard to do. Led Zep was great, but they never hit an album like the Beatles Sergeant Peppers where every song was good, different, and simply worked together.

    Naturally, Sibelius is a nationalist, so his themes are more connected. His D seems to follow the same rhythmic pattern of Beethoven.

    As per Tchaikovsky, what can you say, he was not only original but has the ability to get diverted and return, use irony and humor and schmaltz without the house of cards collapsing. That is pretty hard to do, but let’s face it, Tchaikovsky as Russian.

    That is why I would place the Big 3 in D in their own class.

  • Nate July 18, 2014, 4:21 am

    I personally like the 3rd movement of the paganini violin concerto 1

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