The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor is now a popular play in recordings and concerts, but received disastrous reviews in its premier. Originally dedicated to a renowned violinist Willy Burmester who would play in the premier, the concerto was instead performed by a violin teacher Victor Nováček due to insufficient financial resources. Nováček was never considered as a great virtuoso, and as the concerto was only ready for practice shortly before the premier, Nováček’s performance was not too promising. Sibelius made several revisions and it was only until 1991 when the concerto became well-known to the world through the performance by Leonidas Kavakos, a celebrated violinist of the contemporary times.
The concerto is a technically demanding piece, but unlike Paganini who was both a celebrated virtuoso and composer, Sibelius was a failed violinist. Sibelius took up the piano at nine, and violin at 14. Persistent tremor of his hands resulting from alcohol dependence precluded the possibility of a performing career. The concerto was therefore written for his “ghostly self”, dedicated to the instrument which “took [him] by storm”.
The concerto is highly passionate and rhapsodic, with rhythmic and technical difficulties throughout the work. It combines lyricism and fortitude, making it a rather unique composition among violin concertos.
This review focuses on the second movement of the concerto. Different from the otherworldly first movement and the thrilling third movement, the second movement is unusually dark, much exploiting the lower register of the instrument. The haunting but contemplative woodwinds opening offers a big contrast with the violin entrance at lower tones in the manner of sonoro ed espressivo. The soloist, departing from the otherworldly mood in first movement, is asked by the composer to play melodically and be reconnected with the realistic world, while at the same time accompanied by pizzicato of string instruments to keep the music moving forward. The orchestra goes quiet for rubato passage of the violin before it plays the bridging melody. The soloist re-enters with slight paraphrase of the bridging melody, this time in the form of double-stop triplets and counterpoint. The soloist, playing in the higher register, weaves the heart-wrenching climax of the movement with the orchestra. Soon after the violin melody returns to the low register, the soloist is indulged in a sonorous fantasy of ascending broken octaves. The movement ends in an equally beautiful and contemplative manner as the beginning.
My favourite interpretation of the concerto is played by Christian Ferras (1933-1982), who was regarded as the heir to the French school after Ginette Neveu’s death. Ferras suffered from chronic depression and chose to end his life by committing suicide. The drop of water on his face you may have observed towards the end of the clip was not his sweat, but tears.
Filled with agitation, passion, and remorse – this interpretation is close to perfection. His vibrato and firm bowing instils every note with profound emotions. It does not, however, follow that Ferras pours out his soul entirely. His music remains largely restrained. This does not contradict with my earlier observation that the music contains profound emotions, as profound emotions need not necessarily be expressed explicitly and totally. Instead, these emotions are placed deep below each note, making the music rich. Listeners can discover something new each time they listen to it. Switch off all the lights and your computer screen. Let yourself be accompanied only by the music of Ferras and Sibelius. You will recall all your struggles and regrets during the past year. And yet, as the music gradually grows softer and more distant with high-pitched harmonics, you break away the chains of burdens. Such misfortune that Ferras did not break free from the chains.