The Beethoven violin concerto – could this be the perfect performance?

The Beethoven violin concerto – could this be the perfect performance?


norman lebrecht

January 31, 2020

Welcome to the 26th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


Violin concerto in D major, opus 61 (1806)

This work is so immense and its values so intractable that I called in the violinist Gidon Kremer, who has recorded it three times, to relate his search for a perfect performance before I (tomorrow) cast the net slightly wider and arrive at a variety of self-surprising conclusions.

Gidon, dear friend that he is, has permitted me to quote from a long essay he wrote in 2015 in an attempt to find the ultimate recording. His essay was published by Henle inside a new edition of the concerto.

Gidon started out from a shortlist of ten, sent to him by a French magazine, and then went further than they, or he could have imagined. I recognised many of the agonies he endured and, if I don’t necessarily endorse the notion that there ould be a ‘perfect’ choice,  I can see where and how he got there. Here’s the crucial part of Gidon’s account:

…. I became more and more desperate as time went by. Repeated listening added to my confusion. One day it seemed that my favourite was Francescatti after all. On the next it seemed, that Joseph Szigeti – especially with his authority and cadenza – had won my heart. Then I again returned to the impeccable readings of Heifetz and Milstein. Their sheer perfection was a factor I could not ignore. I also had notions that the cadenzas by Szigeti/Milstein and even Huberman deserve to be published as a kind of a bonus to the set of “ideal recordings”.

And then … something unexpected happened. It came to me “out of the blue”. As I explored the realms of YouTube, I discovered a recording which progressively intrigued and then overwhelmed me. Slowly it became not only my preference above all those I had spent weeks listening to, but clearly my choice. The discovery made my day! I felt relieved to recognise my own set of values and was able to dismiss the idea of being so fixed on my own reception of the concerto that none of other interpreters would ever be able to convince me.

It was such a relief because my dissatisfaction with so many great interpretations which I certainly appreciated but did not love had taken me almost to the point of thinking that my listening abilities were very limited, that I was simply unable to differentiate clearly enough.
I felt that I had failed to give a clear professional explanation. Why I couldn’t I pick out a favourite among so many jewels? Was I too snobbish? Too choosy? Too narrow-minded?

Like a dark cloud on a sunny day, all this frustration suddenly vanished. I had stumbled over one performance which gradually entered the space within me that I have called my “soul”.

Something else happened, too. There was something more interesting about the discovery itself. I became aware that many of the things that I had described as too disturbing for an “ideal” reading suddenly became secondary considerations….

Probably the most surprising element of my discovery was that the interpretation that I came across “by chance” was totally unlike my own imagined “ideal” reading of the work. What I appreciated, loved, adored – and despite the deficiencies referred to above, always will!
– was the fact that this performance was the most personal one. It was not just a display of instrumental capacities at the highest level that was completely devoid of narcissism; it was genuine and very human music-making that also displayed the highest level of commitment to
the creator. It simply matched my ideal notion of “inspiration”.

So what was the recording that had dispelled the gloom of my indecision and brightened my day?For me the best, warmest, most human, most personal performance and the one most dedicated to music – one that everyone should listen to – is the live-recording of Ginette Neveu with the South-West German Radio Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud, dated September 1949, one month before, at the age of 30, she and her pianist brother died in an air crash while on their way to a concert tour in the USA.

More than any other, this performance is filled with plenty of emotion (but not emotionalism), clarity and an individual approach. Re-releasing this unique document of a human soul audibly “breathing” – literally and as well musically – would be a reminder of many things at once: the tragedy of life, the eternal power of artistic creations by geniuses, the multitude of possible approaches to a masterpiece (bearing in mind that next to it, the same set would include Diapason’s own choice, a recording by David Oistrakh – Ginette Neveu’s rival in the Wienawski competition, which she won!). To hear both of them playing the same cadenza would not be to enter them into another competition but would display something of the variety of different approaches to it. For me, the cadenza played by Ginette Neveu demonstrates the closest relationship to … Ludwig. Another reason why this, and no other recording, would be my choice.

The recordings by Heifetz and Milstein will doubtless remain as peaks of almost unachievable perfection but, in many ways, I am more impressed by musicians who are not tied to the fingerboard in their thinking and playing but have set their sights on the distant horizons of the realm where music dwells in its fullness. However, the Ginette Neveu recording would be a wonderful document for all those who cherish not just great playing of an instrument but all that goes with it – an attempt to place a composer’s transcendent intention in a different dimension through a performer’s “soul”, one that will live on in the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

Rediscovering the magic of Ginette Neveu in performance became the greatest reward of the adventure on which I had embarked.

You do not have to listen very long to the Ginette Neveu recording to hear what Gidon is getting at.  The SWR radio orchestra are excellent and the tempo set by Hans Rosbaud amounts to an open invitation to the violinist to try something different, knowing the accompaniment is so secure. Rosbaud speeds up provocatively before the soloist comes in, challenging her to defy him, which she directly does. From here on it’s anyone’s game, the lead switching from maestro to virtuoso and back again. Unimaginably thrilling, this recording is one of the all-time essentials – a performance of near-surreal levels of concentration.

Put it on your must-listen list, then check in again tomorrow for some more, very different interpretations.


UPDATE: The concerto was an instant flop. Often still is.


  • Jean says:

    My favourite of all is the recent one by Tetzlaff

    • Mossback says:

      I heard Tetzlaff play it with the Seattle Symphony about five years ago. Having heard Stern, Perlman, Kremer, and many others play it in concert over the years, it is that Tetzlaff performance which remains most vivid in memory.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    No such thing as the perfect performance. Many different interpretations each have their own merits. That’s what makes it such a sublime work. The piano version is also of interest. Rather ashamed of my reaction to a window cleaner 40+ years ago. I was playing an LP of the piano version when he asked what it was. Instead of explaining that it was a piano version of the violin concerto, I just said it was a Beethoven piano concerto. His response shamed me. “That’s not one of the five”, quoth he. Was this snobbishness on my part? Would I have explained what it was in more detail if he’d had a more cut-glass accent? It was a salutary lesson for which I am still ashamed, but very grateful.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Dawson.
      But there have been a number of great recorded performances, starting with Kreisler/Blech.
      Norman’s suggestion of Neveu/Rosbaud is excellent.
      Heifetz/Toscanini or Munch, Schneiderhan/Jochum, Milstein/Steinberg, and Grumiaux/Galliera are some of my other favorites.
      And the angelic young Mutter with Karajan cannot go unmentioned.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Whoops, KREMER’S suggestion.

    • John Marks says:

      Thanks for sharing that story.

      Somewhat the same thing happened to me with an electrician, also about 40 years ago.

      Two of my brothers and I were renovating a house my parents had bought on the cheap, it was definitely a fixer-upper.

      An electrician noticed that I had brought in my stereo and a few milk cartons full of LPs. I forget what was playing, but he asked if he could look at the LPs. As he was reading the spines, he asked me if I had the first Prokofiev violin concerto. I replied, “Yes, I have the Oistrakh version.”

      His face clouded a bit, and he asked me if I had Heifetz’ recording. At that point, I had to ask him if my younger brother, a Boston Conservatory student, had put him up to this. The electrician looked miffed, and he replied “No! Everybody knows that Heifetz is the best!”

      I told him that I did not have that many Heifetz recordings, and that neither Prokofiev concerto was among them, and he shrugged and told me that as far as he was concerned, I could put anything on.

      IIRC, I next put on the Juilliard Quartet’s 1970s Ravel & Debussy.

      • Paul Carlile says:

        Lovely story and very true, also from my own
        childhood and teenage experience where very “ordinary” people, shopkeepers, workmen…. went to concerts and listened passionately to radio broadcasts, opera, and knew their stuff.
        Just for the record (LP in this case!), I think he may have been referring to the Prok 2nd concerto, as regrettably, Heifetz, (afaik), never recorded no.1.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          We/they still do. Most “ordinary people” we surprise you with their knowledge of something “sophisticated”. If it is not classical music, it will be something else.

    • Frank says:

      Sure, but could he tell a St. Julien from a Margaux?

  • It’s a shame that we feel the need to compare the incomparable. A great reading of a work is just that and should and can stand alone. Of course it’s partly the problem of the recording industry and the repeatability it gives us, the most unnatural thing in the world of a performance based art. Perhaps we could/should be more flexible in our acceptance of the many great performances that are available for us to hear and watch and be grateful for that.

  • Violinhead says:

    Excellent essay by Kremer. I’ve always loved Neveu’s playing. It’s hard not to wonder what other gifts she would have left had her life not ended so early.

    Thankfully, I have her Beethoven recording on a CD that also includes Chausson Poeme and Ravel Tzigane.

  • Bruce says:

    I remember when you published, or at least linked to, that essay. I looked for the Neveu recording: was only able to find the first half of the first movement of it YouTube (this was before Idagio), but found it extraordinary. I look forward to being able to hear the rest of it, and also offering opinions on your other choices.

  • Anon says:

    My favorite is definitely Kopatchinskaja’s. To the old hags about to dislike my comment, try to open your mind and actually listen without preconceptions about how to play music. Harnoncourt’s famous quote springs to mind….

  • Jack says:

    I’ve spent most of my adult life with Grumiaux’s performance in my ears.

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    Some years ago I compared some of the earlier recordings back to back so to speak. These included Kreisler, Szigeti & the Heifetz/Toscanini recording all on the Naxos historical recordings label. The Heifetz was the best by a mile. While I have yet to listen to the Neveau version, my all time favorite has been the Oistrakh/ Cluytens recording.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading Gidon Kremer’s essay; for some reason Milstein’s interpretation does not seem to get praised very much. Thank you for inducing him to write it.

    Milstein’s own cadenzas, which Charles Treger preferred by the way, are also a worthy addition to the list (the Soviets used to publish entire books of cadenzas – I have the one with bunches of cadenzas to the Mozart violin concertos – and I believe the book of cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto has fifty different cadenzas!).

    I am a bit puzzled by Kremer’s reference to Szigeti’s cadenzas, since he did not compose any for this concerto. For his 1932 and 1947 recordings, both with Bruno Walter, he played the standard Joachim cadenzas (the 1932 recording being the greatest recording those cadenzas have received, in my view); for his 1961 stereo recording for Mercury very late — sadly, too late — in his playing career he unearthed the Busoni cadenza which actually brings the orchestra into the act. Beethoven wrote his own cadenza for the piano version of the score, which famously has the tympani join in, and there have been arrangements for violin; Schneiderhan and Ricci are among those who have recorded it. Indeed Ricci’s Biddulph CD is tracked in such a way that the first movement cadenza is separated from what comes before and after it; he then adds the first movement cadenzas by David, Vieuxtemps, TWO versions of Joachim, Laub, Wieniawski, Saint-Saens, Auer, Ysaye, the afore-mentioned Busoni, Kreisler of course, Milstein and Schnittke (another “accompanied” cadenza and memorably recorded by — Gidon Kremer). With effort you can program any of them into the performance. Anyone with an interest in this concerto and its cadenzas really must track down the Ricci CD, even if Ricci’s way with the score (surprisingly classical considering the source) does not make it a favorite.

    One irony to the benefits of today’s digital editing capability, which can make the side joins of 78 rpm recordings undetectable, is that the early practice of slowing down for the end of each 78 rpm side can make the interpretations sound a bit arbitrary. I hear some of that in the 1932 Szigeti/Walter recording (and in other Bruno Walter 78s), and I hear it in Fritz Kreisler’s famous 1926 recording with Leo Blech conducting. Another oddity of Kreisler/Blech is that the pitch did not remain constant during the three days it took to record the work. Correcting the pitch likely introduces still more tempo variation.

    I would certainly want Kreisler/Blech to be considered for any short list of irreplaceable recordings on this work (I prefer “irreplaceable” to “perfect” because it admits of so many more versions and approaches), but I want to throw one name out for you that not many may have heard or heard of: Josef Wolfsthal (1899-1931). He recorded it on acoustical 78s in 1925 even as the electrical process was making acoustical recordings obsolete. Biddulph issued it on CD. His 1928 remake was of course electrical – Manfred Gurlitt conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. Pearl issued it on CD – almost all my Pearl CDs are unplayable now due to the dreaded “bronzing” flaw, but this one is OK. If Wolfsthal is known to collectors it is for his trio recordings with Hindemith and Feuermann or his solos in the Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme 78s conducted by the composer. It is tempting to say Wolfsthal might have reached even greater heights in the Beethoven Concerto had he not died of complications of the flu — but had he lived he might not have lived. He was a Jew living in Berlin and things were about to get very bad ….

    • Nelson says:

      “ Another oddity of Kreisler/Blech is that the pitch did not remain constant during the three days it took to record the work. Correcting the pitch likely introduces still more tempo variation.”.

      It’s not possible that correcting the speed and pitch drift on those sides would introduce MORE tempo variation. Correcting it would restore the original amount of tempo variation.

  • Edgar Self says:

    When Jackob Krachmalnik was concertmaster in San Francisco, as he was previously in Amsterdam and Philadelphia, he visited pianist Wlliam Corbett-Jones, who asked me to come over and bring some violin records. I took Bronislaw Hubermann and Szell with the VPO in Beethoven’s concerto.

    Jake sat unspeaking until Hubermann’s electrifying entrance, re-thinking the figuration and rising to a shriek on the top D, when he got up and sat on the floor with an ear against the speaker, remaining there until the end, when he resumed his seat, still saying nothing, but he heard everything Hubermann did, the shocking portamenti, muscular bowing, thumps on the finger-board, and once when the bow touched a lower sring, all left in.

    I’ve heard many others from Kreisler to Janine Jansen that I also loved, but none affected me like this Hubermann.

  • John Marks says:

    I had read Maestro Kremer’s essay some time ago. I was sorry that he did not comment upon my all-things-considered favorite LvB vln cto recording, that of the criminally under-appreciated Josef Suk, with Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia (1971).

    For pure violinism, Menuhin’s 1947 recording with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra cannot be beat, mostly for the divine frenzy Menuhin brings to the rhapsodic, symphonic Fritz Kreisler cadenzas.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    I have listened to and enjoyed many, but I come back to Oistrakh again and again. There’s an EMI recording with Ehrling, but my favorite is a live recording with Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic in London, one of those BBC Legends releases. Fritz Kreisler is also amazing if you can deal with the very antique sound quality.

  • Alexander T says:

    Ginette Neveu. One of the greatest.
    Her recordings, both live and in the studio, are a must.

  • Lawrence Gilliam says:

    There’s a quite moving performance on Youtube by Soyoung Yoon and Kristof Penderecki. You can tell the orchestra is very focused and loving the music. Extraordinary.

  • Robert Roy says:

    I’ve collected recordings of Beethoven’s Op.61 since CDs first appeared and now have approximately 90! I’d be hard pressed to find a bad performance amongst them although some are more ‘individual’ than others.

    My absolute favourite though has to Perlman’s live performance with Barenboim and Die Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI. Mind you, Mr. Heifetz is pretty good too as is Menuhin, Oistrakh, (father and son) and so on…

  • Robert Roy says:

    And not forgetting the amazing Ricci recording with all the different cadenzas!

  • Daniel Kravetz says:

    The greatest exponent of this concerto was Menuhin. The recording he made around 1971 which he conducted himself is my favorite.

    • Robert Roy says:

      I was lucky enough to hear Menuhin play the Beethoven Concerto with the Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson in 1978. I only heard Menuhin once and I’m so glad it was that work. (Alas, as a 14 year old I was unable to remember anything about his performance. I do remember that he was very small in physical stature although his charisma was colossal!)

  • John wills says:

    Her Sibelius is also rather stunning.

  • Thibault says:

    Anton Steck made a very interesting recording on period instruments.

  • Hilary says:

    “Though she worked untiringly at her playing, Neveu was not solely committed to music. She enjoyed reading – non-fiction only – table tennis, playing chess, swimming, boules and riding”

    Some lessons to be learnt from this for the young virtuosos of today.

  • M2N2K says:

    After reading Gidon Kremer’s eloquent essay, I just had to listen to Ginette Neveu’s recording, but unfortunately was rather disappointed: several touching and beautiful moments to be sure, but too much dirty imprecision and questionable taste to be ignored in such a great piece. Some of the usual suspects named in other comments here are far more satisfying, including but not limited to – Heifetz, Milstein, David Oistrakh.

  • Micaelo Cassetti says:

    Have always been rather fond of Krebbers and Haitink; I used to think it was because I particularly liked H as a Beethovenian, but later on, I heard Krebbers’ Dvorak concerto with Anton Kersjes, and really liked that as well.
    I never tire of listening to it (the Beethoven); same goes for Fidelio, which a lot of opera-fetishists seem to deride…

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    Very interesting to see the name of the un-sung Hans
    Rosbaud surface again. I recall vividly, as a young music
    student, hearing glowing accounts of his six-week residency in 1962 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
    and that CSO members reminisced about this stint for years following its conclusion.