The Beethoven violin concerto: Still searching for Mr Right

The Beethoven violin concerto: Still searching for Mr Right


norman lebrecht

February 01, 2020

Welcome to the 27th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Violin concerto, opus 61 (part 2)

Gidon Kremer was our guest yesterday in trying to find the perfect performance. He started out with this shortlist sent to him by a French music magazine. It’s not a bad list, but I have some instant caveats.

1 Joseph Szigeti / Bruno Walter / British Symphony Orchestra, 1932
2 Bronislaw Huberman / George Szell / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1934
3 Fritz Kreisler / John Barbirolli / London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1936
4 Jascha Heifetz / Arturo Toscanini / NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1940
5 Yehudi Menuhin / Furtwängler / Berlin Philharmonic, 1947
6 Christian Ferras / Karl Böhm / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1951
7 Zino Francescatti / Dimitri Mitropoulos / New York Philharmonic, 1955 (live)
8 Nathan Milstein / William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, 1955
9 Jascha Heifetz / Charles Munch / Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1955
10 Leonid Kogan / Constantin Silvestri / Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, 1960

You will spot instantly that these are all historic recordings with a cut-off date of 1960. Some of the artists made better-sounding recordings later. In Kreisler’s case, his defining recording was made a decade earlier. I am not sure the Kogan version is the best of three currently available on Idagio. And Francescatti, lyrical though he is, would probably not make it into my top ten. If one wanted Ferras at peak performance, its would probably be hs best-selling release with Karajan in 1967.

And look who gets left out – no Oistrakh, no Ida Haendel, no Schneiderhan, Szeryng or Stern.

So let’s take the recorded history from the top.

UPDATE: Beethoven’s concerto was an instant flop. Often still is.

In early December 1926, the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler arrived from New York to record the Beethoven violin concerto in the frenetic atmosphere of post-stagflationary Berlin with the state opera orchestra and its capable conductor, Leo Blech. Kreisler had stamped his mark on the concerto from an early age by writing the cadenza, the improvisatory solo section. His score became so popular that most other violinists stopped bothering to write their own. So essential was the Kreisler cadenza to the Beethoven concerto that the Nazis, who forced its composer into exile in fear of his life, allowed its continued use in their concert halls.

Kreisler’s first recording of the concerto has, therefore, the status of an historic document, as well as being a performance of such lively and humane character that you can listen to it over and again and still marvel at its beauty and its connectivity. Some took to disparaging Kreisler for the romntic sweetness of his tone, but the tone is a true reflection of his twinkling eyes, his elegant deportment, his bushy moustache and his fondness for the gambling tables and a night away from his fierce American wife. Few recordings so readily bring to life the character of a performer as this one does. His second recording, a decade later in London with John Barbirolli, feels rather less personal.

I am personally attached to a rare DG recording from 1929 by the concertmaster of the Berlin opera orchestra, Josef Wolfsthal, a carefree virtuoso who played the old cadenzas by Joseph Joachim and sounded as if he belonged to another age. Tragically, Wolfsthal died two years later of pneumonia, aged 31, and this is practically the only record we have of his playing (it is not yet on Idagio)

Joseph Szigeti, a Hungarian-Jewish artist of rapid American fame, made an impressive 1932 recording in Westminster Hall, London, with Bruno Walter and a hand-picked (or pick-up) British orchestra. His hand is heavier than Kreisler’s and his mien more serious but his authority is magisterial and his flexibility supple and surprising. A post-War repeat with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic is marred by the arthritis that curtailed his career; Szigeti lived on to 1973.

Jascha Heifetz was unassailable in America and incontestable in the great concertos, albeit chillier than ideal in this particular masterpiece, with Toscanini as his conductor in the crabby NBC studio acoustic. I’m inclined to prefer him with Mitropoulous in 1956 and Charles Munch in 1960, with comparatively lush sound. That said, it’s touch and go if any Heifetz recording makes it into my all-time top ten for this work.

Huberman, founder of the Israel Philharmonic, was a big personality with a controversial technique that induces nervousness in listeners. He recorded the concerto in 1934 with Georg Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic. Try the opening of the finale to see if you can bear it. Myself, I’d rather not hear it again.

Menuhin’s September 1947 concert with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic find both sides fumbling in darkness through a minefield. Yehudi Menuhin, whose name means ‘Jew’, is the first of his kind to engage with these compromised musicians since the defeat of Hitler. The tension is gripping. None of Menuhin’s subsequent recordings comes close.

Among several recordings by the endearing Nathan Milstein (pictured), his mature 1972 performance with Adrian Boult is not yet on Idagio and you’ll have to make do with inferior sound on Youtube.

Where does that leave us? One of the most unforgettable accounts of the concerto imaginable is played by the Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster Erich Röhn, with Furtwängler conducting, in January 1944 as defeat stares Berlin in the face. The concert is imbued with an air of doom, tinged with the timelessness of art. It seems to hint that Germany might die, but Beethoven will endure forever. Nothing I have ever heard on record comes close to this concert atmosphere. And, by the way, he plays the Kreisler cadenza.

You might like to compare it to a notably fragile performance, captured in occupied Amsterdam in 1943 – soloist Guila Bustabo with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouworkest. The violin tone is so thin you’d think everyone was starving. It’s available only on Idagio.

David Oistrakh made two recordings – one in Moscow and another in East Berlin – before he was allowed out in June 1954 to record with Sixten Ehrling and the Stockholm Philharmonic. His singing tone in the finale is one of the wonders of human civilisation.

So a shortlist: Neveu, Kreisler, Menuhin, Röhn, Oistrakh, Milstein – and the moderns still to come tomorrow.

UPDATE: One we missed?


  • Charles Clark Maxwell says:

    ==Guila Bustabo It’s available only on Idagio.

    It’s been on YT for a couple of years

    • jay says:

      The sound is too poor and as a violin concerto it is just a so-so work but it does have the Beethoven name so most will wax poetic . As a violin concerto
      it is well below the wonderful work of art by Felix

  • Tully Potter says:

    Three performances by Adolf Busch have appeared on CD – he is unequalled in the Larghetto. A live Huberman performance from the war years with Barzin finds him less robust but more inside the work than with Szell. The best Oistrakh is an East German Radio performance from about 1954 with Abendroth. Perlman’s live performance with Barenboim is very fine, much better than the studio version with Giulini. The final Kogan with his son conducting is, as always with this artist, very profound.

    • Dan oren says:

      The Oistrakh-Abendroth version is indeed my favorite of his many recordings (live and studio). Wolfsthal is superb, but what a pity Furtwängler is not conducting…
      NL is very severe and unfair with his appreciation of Huberman (even if Szell found his playing in the 2nd movement too sentimental »it’s larghetto, not ghetto »)
      Klemperer, while conducting the Brahms concerto with Oistrakh thought he took too much time to tune his violin at the end of the first movement. Oistrakh heard him mumbling in German « now why does he take so much time tuning, Huberman never did that »!!!
      Back to Beethoven : Milstein is without any hesitation in the top 10…even top 3: among his many live recordings, my favorite would be a 1959 performance inParis with the Orchestre National under Lorin Maazel: there’s some fire this day, and Milstein’s glorious sound is sublimated by Maazel’s energy, without losing its legendary nobility. The way he plays the return of third movement theme after the cadenza is unequaled, both solar and triumphant (a dimension missing in Heifetz ‘s recordings, in my opinion)
      1 Milstein
      2 Huberman
      3 Oistrakh
      4 Neveu
      5 Kreisler Blech
      6 Menuhin Furtwangler 47
      7 Wolfstahl(2nd recording)
      8 Heifetz Mitropoulos
      9 Francescatti Ormandy (probably the most perfect studio recording)
      10: Kogan Silvestri
      but let’s not forget Szeryng, Ferras, Grumiaux Hirshhorn Morini, Martzy,….

  • Louis says:

    If you are considering earlier recordings, is it worth mentioning Adolf Busch? I believe that there is a pair of a fine live performance and an unapproved studio recording from 1942 with the NY Phil conducted by his brother Fritz, and a powerful 1949 Danish recording which has had a few missing fragments filled in and issued on Guild Historical – worth a listen.

  • steven holloway says:

    Baffling that NL doesn’t mention two other options re the Milstein (concert) performance. Besides Idagio and YT, one could purchase it on BBC Legends as a cd, or as an EMI dvd. Both these include the rest of the concert, and that means Boult conducting VW’s Symphony No. 8. Getting either is costly unless you shop around. I did and paid circa $20 for the cd and, later, about $30 for the dvd. Both used and both in splendid condition.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Good comments, Norman. I want to hear that Wolfsthal. I wish you liked Hubermann/Szell more — he also has a later air-check performance after his’recovery from an air crash in Malaysia — early reviewers spoke of ‘passionate philosophizing”. Ruggiero Ricci recorded this and Brahms’s concerto with two dozen programmable different cadenzas including his own. It’s a dictionary of cadenznas. I also like Erik Roehn and Furtwaengler,and HeifetzMuench. I look forward to Kremer’s choices and comments as well.

  • Jon says:

    I doubt there is much to be said against the 1944 Berlin Phil performance as you say – but is this not a great deal of looking backwards?
    Surely Beethoven was a composer who looked forwards in ways nobody has done before or since.
    And so for my money the great omission here (whether or not it ends up at the top of the list though it is certainly at the top of mine) is Hilary Hahn with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore SO

  • ira says:

    re the kreisler cadenza, i have a ricci cd of the brahms concerto with 16 cadenzas. didn’t he record the beethoven with optional cadenzas as well?

  • Mark says:

    Heifetz may not wear his heart on his sleeve but it’s all contained in there: the grandeur, the sweetness, the melancholy and joy. It’s my fave. Seek out Pristine Audio’s remaster. It lets the performance out of the Studio 8H box and it is glorious.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    There’s an Oistrakh with Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic recorded live in London, one of the BBC Legends discs. It’s probably my favorite, though I grew up with Kreisler/Barbirolli and have a lot of love for Hahn/Zinman.

    A violin professor once made the suggestion that we both play the concerto on the same program. He would do the original, and I would do the piano version. Unfortunately the conductor of the orchestra didn’t like the idea so it never happened but I think it could be a very interesting juxtaposition.

  • Ger says:

    Go visite a good live performance and forget this nonsense….

  • Edgar Self says:

    Many thanks fo Tully Potter and Louis for comments on Adolf Busch, stand-and-deliver practitioner of this concerto. Mr. Potter’s two-volume biography of Adolf Busch is a classic.

    Such Busch recordings as this and Brahms’s concerto, Bach’s solo Sonata in C, double violin concerto, Brandenburgs and orchestral suites repay creative listening, also Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Schubert’s E-flat trio with his brother Hermann and son-in-law Rudolf Serkin, especially the 1951 for Columbia.

  • Steven says:

    Not sure where this recording falls on your timeline, but I nominate Christian Ferras / Malcolm Sargent/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1959. It’s on idagio.

  • Jack says:


    • Fagottlucide says:

      Arthur Grumiaux, the most famous Belgian violinist after Ysaÿe, largely forgotten today, was at his best in Mozart. But his recording of B’s concerto with Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra is so poetic. Listen!

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Thank you for pointing out the Erich Rohm version. I loved hearing that on YouTube. Especially fine orchestral work. Plenty of give and take in tempos, and the small but very effective use of portamento. Superb soloist. Must order the cd.

  • Sandro says:

    Philippe Hirshhorn , it’s on youtube

  • Daniel says:

    Highly recommend Pinchas Zukerman’s interpretation with Zubin and the NY Phil. LIVE from United Nations Assembly where Pinchas replaces Milstein on short notice.

  • Rachelle Goldberg says:

    The Schneiderhan recording has the special Cadenza for the first movement that is taken from the arrangement that Beethoven made for his Piano Concerto whereby part of the Cadenza has a Tympani accompaniment

  • BrianB says:

    I like Kremer’s list and Szigeti/Walter belongs in the top spot. His playing is incredibly eloquent and exquisitely phrased. However, for Kreisler I’d also choose the earlier recording under Blech. Rather too slow as a performance for my taste and for the piece to hang together but his playing is so beautiful and poetic, you just sit back and let the lovin’ happen. (Likewise his Brahms; and Szigeti’s Brahms with Harty).
    However, I would replace the Menuhin/Furtwangler which really is too draggy and would-be monumental with Ginette Neveu’s one surviving performance under Hand Rosbaud and the SWR Sinfonie-Orchester Badden-Baden und Freiberg. Rosbaud is excellent. Slower tempi, but (like Toscanini) he makes that first movement cohere as a sturdy platform for Neveu’s cherishable playing. What a loss to music. Curse all airplanes.

    • Dan oren says:

      Actually, there’s another performance by Neveu, May 1st 1949 in Holland with Van Otterloo (not as good as Rosbaud)

  • Donald Hansen says:

    I see no mention of Josef Suk’s September 1970 recording for EMI with Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia. It’s been ages since I have played it and am not sure if it came out on CD. In going through my collection I find two other Boult led performances. One is a Decca LP of a January 1952 performance by Ruggiero Ricci with the LPO, and the other is a September 29, 1968 BBC Legends CD with Nathan Milstein and the LPO recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall. That CD also features works by Bach, Paganini, de Falla and Novacek, and not the VW 8th Symphony as mentioned above by Steven Holloway. ICA Classics did release on a DVD a live concert of October 12, 1972 with Boult conducting the VW 8th and Job, but that’s another subject.

  • Donald Hansen says:

    Correction to my recent post. The Suk-Boult recording was mentioned by John Marks in Part 1. I was pleased to see that. Thanks, John.

  • Brian says:

    Frank-Peter Zimmermann has unfortunately not even been mentioned. One of the very best violinsts around, he appeared many times at the Proms.