“Ohrwurm” [ˈoːɐ̯ˌvʊʁm] – that’s what the Germans call it. Earworm? Does that exist in English? Here is what I mean: a melody that you hear once and that you can’t get out of your head then. The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven wrote such an “Ohrwurm” – his violin concerto in D major, Op. 61. It’s the only violin concerto he wrote, and one wonders why, since this piece is absolutely amazing! It has a profound effect on me. Whenever I hear it, I feel wide awake, instantly energized, totally present. I also feel transported into another world, floating above life on earth, defying gravity. Unsurprisingly, it is one of my all time favourite violin concertos.
A tremendous Isabelle Faust
Beethoven’s concerto has premiered time in 1806 in Vienna (Theater an der Wien) in the original version for solo violin. Beethoven wrote it within a month upon the request of the violinist and conductor Franz Clementi. Beethoven’s British publisher suggested a second version for a solo piano, which saw the light in the summer of 1807 (Op. 61a). It is equally beautiful, but quite different from the original version. Interestingly, the violin concert did not become popular until Felix Mendelssohn and the violinist Joseph Joachim took the decision to perform it in Germany’s largest concert halls.
I had the incredible chance to attend a performance of Beethoven’s Op. 61 in Luxembourg last Thursday with Isabelle Faust – yes! – on the violin and Gustavo Gimeno conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. 42 minutes of misty eyes. Temporarily speechless, stunned by the beauty of the piece when performed live, mesmerized by the elegance of Isabelle Faust’s play, carried away by the dynamics of the piece, deeply moved by Beethoven’s melodies.
Soaring like a glider
The opening: Da-da-da-da, four quarter notes on the timpani, taken up by the strings a little later. At some point the solo violin lifts off, soars high above the other voices, like a glider spiralling in a thermal wind. Brilliant! I just have to think of the da-da-da-da, and the first movement starts to play in my head. It lasts 21 minutes!! 21 minutes of elation and it ends on a gentle violin solo, seconded by the no lesser subtle timpani, who is the unsung hero of the whole piece. The second and the immediately adjoining third movements are no less impressive. They evoke in my mind again a slow ascension to heaven, higher and higher, solo parts alternate with tutti parts until we reach very thin air – the audience holds its breath as Isabelle Faust soars from note to note. Failure is not an option. This movement, performed live, made me realize two things: Beethoven’s piece requires an incredible precision in its execution by the orchestra. So many things can go wrong and mistakes will not pass unnoticed. And the soloist must be incredibly good to get it right.
I appreciate excellence when I hear and see it. I heard it last Thursday. A tremendous experience. An evening I will never ever forget. Almost a religious moment.
I venerate Beethoven for the same reason I venerate Bach: Beautiful constructions, mathematics set to music, perfectly logical, elegant, highly expressive, austere and still full of emotions. Very, very different from the romantic music I cherish, and that’s what makes Beethoven so precious to me: the contrast to other music of the 19th century. He’s been pushing the envelope in the field of composition. nd few after him have reached that level of achievement.
A Child Prodigy from Bonn
Did I really manage to write a blog about classical music for several months without mentioning Beethoven? Unbelievable. Unforgivable. Here is his life, in short, just to give you an idea. He was born in 1770 in Bonn (in Germany, on the Rhine) and gave his first public concerts when he was eight years old. Gasp! He soon became known as the Child Prodigy after Mozart. Re-gasp! He briefly met Mozart in 1787 in Vienna since Mozart was supposed to teach young Ludwig. But Beethoven had to return when his mother died and came back to Vienna only in 1792. By then, Mozart was dead and Beethoven turned to Joseph Haydn as his teacher.
He soon became famous for his many works: nine symphonies, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, a triple concerto, two violin romances and many piano sonatas, cello sonatas, trios and quartets for strings, trios for piano, masses and exactly one opera: Fidelio, Op. 72. Unfortunately, through the wrong treatment of an infection of his ears, Beethoven gradually became deaf and had to stop performing as a pianist and conducting concerts in 1814. He died in 1827, lonely and in black despair over his fate. The end of a genius. The end of a giant.
The Prague Philharmonia under Jiri Belohlavek and Isabelle Faust have recorded Beethoven’s violin concerto, an album that I can warmly recommend. Op. 61 is also available on Spotify, the solo being performed by Lisa Batiashvili. The piano version has been recorded by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and Dmitri Bashkirov for the piano part.
© Charles Thibo