Do you know Lalo? Of course you do, you have met him in a post two weeks ago! Edouard Lalo composed a piece called “Symphonie Espagnole” (Spanish Symphony) which inspired Pyotr Tchaikovsky to write his Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35. “Do you know the “Symphonie Espagnole” of the French composer Lalo?”, Tchaikovsky asks in a letter his patron Nadezhda von Meck in March 1878. “I liked this work very much. A lot of freshness, spiking rhythms, beautiful melodies with remarkable harmonies.” All this can be said about Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.
And he must have been really, really inspired by Lalo. Imagine, the first sketches go back to the beginning of March 1878 and a month later the complete score was ready! He dedicated it to the violinist Leopold Auer, who graciously accepted the honour – and decided that it was impossible to perform the concerto. Bam! But it got worse. The premiere took place not in Moscow, not in St. Petersburg, but in faraway Vienna where the music critic Edouard Hanslick was roaming the venues to terminate any composer not compliant with his sense of beauty.
Here is what he wrote: “The Russian composer Tchaikovsky certainly has a remarkable talent, but he is writing pieces that are awkward and full of bad taste. Such is his new concerto for violin, a long and pretentious work. For some time it flows musically uninspired, but then coarseness flashes up and doesn’t leave the first movement until its end.” The second movement is too short, according to Hanslick, and the finale “smells bad”. Double-trible-bam!
Right, Herr Hanslick, now that you have said your part we would like to hear a piece composed by you and see if you can do better! Of course, Hanslick, a trained law expert, never composed anything meaningful, and the polemic tone of his reviews can partly be explained by his frustration that he wasn’t allowed to say anything polemic about politics. During the revolution of 1848/49 he had supported the insurgents, and when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire struck back, Hanslick had exposed himself a little too much and had to look for a new job – as a music critic.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Minor seems very appropriate to me to accompany you and me through the beginning of fall, with days growing shorter, frosty nights, trees growing brown, red and yellow. It is one of the most important works for the violin in the history of Romantic music and the first Russian violin concerto that became part of the standard Romantic repertoire. The vast first and last movements, a challenge in virtuosity, build the framework around a short, slow second movement, imbued – as Hanslick acknowledged – by a gently nostalgia. Originally, Tchaikovsky had written a fourth movement that later became part of the piece “Souvenir d’un lieu cher” (op. 42), finalized right after the concerto.
If you care for a real treat, I suggest you check out the daring performance of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the ensemble MusicAEterna under Teodor Currentzis. An alternative would be the slightly more traditional recording by Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
© Charles Thibo