Thursday, May 28, 2009

Personal Notes: The Beethoven Violin Concerto

There is so much of available literature (in books, reviews and articles) on this piece that I thought I would share instead my personal experience with the Beethoven violin concerto.

I do not remember the year or the month or the day that I first heard this concerto, but I do remember the circumstances. I did come to this piece late (in my early 20s). My violin teacher at the time was Fredrick Mendahna, who hailed from Goa (a city made famous by Portuguese occupation; on the west coast of India). A retired grandfather he may have been, but his playing had all the punch and verve you would expect in a young violinist. Classes were in his apartment.

On one occasion I had arrived early and was limbering up as he finished his meal in the next room. I played a very impassioned but dreadful rendition of Beethoven’s Largo from his Triple Concerto. Mendahna came out as soon as I finished and while he could not have been impressed with my audacity at taking on a masterpiece like that, he did see that I was extremely fired up with Beethoven.

Instead of heading for his violin to commence class, he went to his album collection and pulled out a recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Yehudi Menuhin (with the great Otto Klemperer as conductor). He loaned it to me for a few weeks.

I came home that day and listened to the LP on an old mono LP player (our stereo system was in need of repair at that point). I listened to it many more times in the weeks that followed.

The music threw me! The majesty and beauty of that first movement, the sublime Largehetto and the rousing final movement…it was all beyond the most beautiful I had heard at any time before (of course, I had not yet heard the last string quartets or the last piano sonatas or the Missa Solemnis; and those make up another story!).

My father, who until then enjoyed listening to the Beethoven Triple Concerto more than any other concerto, on listening to the first few minutes of the violin concerto, could not help but wax lyrical and call the music nothing short of “divine”.

Those days of first discovery of this treasure will remain imbued in my memory as golden days; days sanctified by Beethoven, Menuhin and Klemperer reaching me across the divide of time and space and filling my heart with a sunlit serenity that I have always been able to bring back with each repeat listening. To those ‘touched’ by this masterpiece, it may not be difficult to understand it when I say that the Larghetto has cast its warmth and light on many a dark moment and I invariably come out of its exalted air feeling with certainty that life is nothing but beautiful.

While the Brahms violin concerto may be more difficult and Mendelssohn’s may be more violinistic, the Beethoven is by all accounts the summit of the violin concerto repertoire. I have since then heard recordings of this concerto by Josef Suk, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Jascha Heifetz, Maxim Vengerov, Anne Sophie Mutter, Joshua Bell and countless others; but none have approached the radiance and power of that first recording I heard (including, in my estimate, Menuhin’s own earlier recording with Furtwangler).

Have you a story to tell on the Beethoven violin concerto?

1 comment:

  1. God bless Mr.Mendahna ! And God surely blessed Beethoven when he wrote this piece. To me, in its entirety the most beautiful piece of music I have heard. I would think there are movements, sections and passages in Beethoven , especially from the Missa Solemnis, last quartets and piano sonatas that equal and even surpass this beauty. But for sustained beauty - first note to last across three gigantic movements, with the most powerful purity and simplicity, there is perhaps no equal to this piece. It gushes with melody and dazzles with its cohesion and splendor. It is remarkable that Beethoven achieved such a complete mastery of the process here that this violin concerto, with no virtuoso displays, no gymnastics, no show, no wild departures stands as perhaps the greatest concerto in the genre. That same man who wrote the Eroica and the fifth with their shattering intensity and complexity wrote this concerto is a testimony to Beethoven's unsurpassed artistic fidelity. His Pastoral symphony, likewise sings right through with a rustic simplicity only Beethoven could achieve. Both these masterworks share a sustained lyrical beauty like few other pieces in all of western history. They both take a lot of thought, art, skill, craftsmanship and the infamous 'battling with the material' that Beethoven had on hand, but like Mozart, here Beethoven brings forth a beauty that shows 'no evidence of the struggle'. Complete. Perfect. Divinely beautiful! Few other pieces have been so beloved to me as this; so loving, so intimate, so moving and so wise. This violin concerto is surely the greatest of all composers at his greatest.