Review Summary: While it may not stand as high as Stravinsky’s greatest works, his only violin concerto more than does the instrument justice
The opening chord to Stravinsky’s violin concerto has its own little history behind it. Stravinsky, hesitant to write a concerto for an instrument he was unfamiliar with, wrote the chord on a napkin and showed it to violinist Samuel Dushkin, who initially pronounced the chord unplayable. It seemed that Stravinsky, who’d had misgivings about writing the concerto in the first place, had been stonewalled before he’d begun. It was only later, after Dushkin had gone home and attempted the chord, that he found it surprisingly easy to play in the high register that Stravinsky wanted. The chord was, for Stravinsky, the passport to the rest of the concerto, so much so, that the chord itself, stretching from D to E to an excruciatingly high A, has become referred to as the “passport” chord.
The first movement itself, after the repeated blare of that opening chord, is jaunty and urban, recalling the bustle and chaos of city life, as snatches of melody rise from the bustle of the orchestra, phrases from the horns and woodwinds rising above all business, all while the violin dips and dives around and above like a head trying to jump above the crowd for a chance at a better view. The focus on instruments other than the violin would seem to back up the idea that maybe Stravinsky wasn’t as confident writing for this instrument as he was for others; with as much of a prominent role being played by other instruments giving voice her and throughout the first movement, the voice of the violin runs the risk of being lost in all the hub-bub as it nimbly dances around and through all the chaos.
The second movement, less sprightly and more melodic in nature opens again with the passport chord before laying out a melancholic melody that dissolves into slightly manic runs of notes that seem to leap between the established mood of melancholy and something a little more frenzied, crazed, maybe even a little ironic or playful. There’s a kind of split in this movement, titled Aria I, a disjunction between these two moods that seems to oscillate between these poles from measure to measure, that kinetic, frantic quality of the first movement contrasted with a more sentimental emotiveness, as though some internal struggle between sensations was going on within the composer.
On the third movement, titled Aria II, after the introductory passport chord, the melody gives way to something more straightforwardly emotive. Gone is the irony, the shifting between moods at the drop of a hat; it seems that one feeling has prevailed over the other, or as though the bustle and frenzy of the crowded street has given way to a melancholic solitude. The shrill, aching theme from the violin appears several times throughout, underscored by piercing woodwinds and developing, finally, into a moody, whispered lullaby. This movement, the most openly beautiful of the concerto, has, in its development from the impersonal bustle of the first and the frantic tension between moods in the second, almost a feeling of falling back into repose, of an intimate mood that allows for a simple, pure expression of emotionality.
The final movement explodes this melancholy with a spirited blast of that passport chord, followed by a bouncing, sprightly run of notes that rips into the roaring folk finale convention with zest and gusto. A rousing finale that stretches the technical abilities of the soloist to their absolute limits, the music still maintains that swirling interaction between soloist and orchestra as the soloist and another solo violin part engage in a brief, playful duet, then as phrases are mirrored and repeated by the woodwinds and blasting chords from the violin are answered by tromping scales from the horn section and the violin part bounces along to its unadorned, but fitting conclusion.
The violin concerto is often a test of a composer’s ability not only to write a piece heavily featuring an instrument whose voice and limitations may be somewhat unfamiliar ground, but to draw all the expressive richness out of this instrument, the keening, yearning qualities that are unique to this instrument. Many composers have written only one violin concerto, however, that single piece often ends ups standing among that composer’s great works, as in the case of Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg. But Stravinsky’s piece, as varied in mood, construction and texture as it is, and as much of a pure joy the final two movements are, just doesn’t seem to live up to his greatest works. Stravinsky wrote this concerto right in the middle of his neoclassical period, when he was reevaluating and developing his own compositional style through the theoretical lens of the classical period, in a more naturalistic development of his style than the radical striking out into the unknown that had been his earlier, more iconoclastic period. And while he composed many worthwhile works in this period (the ballets Apollo and Orpheus are especially successful), the music of this period just doesn’t have the mold-shattering heft of those earlier works, nor the fine-tuned, cerebral bent of his later serialist pieces. There’s a lot to love about this concerto on an immediate musical level, the technically demanding solo part and all the little interactions between soloist and orchestra are an instant delight, and the structural and melodic callbacks to past eras are a treat as well, but even among violin concertos of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s ends up being somewhere just behind the forefront. Schoenberg, Berg, Sibelius and arguably Bartok all wrote concertos in that century that are more deserving of their place in the classical music canon, if only by a narrow margin. But this is Stravinsky after all, and even if this neoclassical period of his music isn’t quite the storm that his earlier work was, there is still much to stand in awe of in this work by arguably the 20th century’s greatest composer.