Wednesday, December 14, 2011

David Oistrakh: Sibelius Violin Concerto

David Oistrakh performs from the third movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, opus 47, with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, in February 1966. Jean Sibelius [1865-1957], the Finnish composer, completed the piece in 1904.


This was the only concerto that Jean Sibelius wrote. Originally dedicated to Willy Burmeister, it had an early history of failure. The violinist to whom the work was dedicated never performed it, which might have contributed to its initial poor public reception, notes one Sibelius reviewer:
Sibelius had arranged for the former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra and then renowned virtuoso Willy Burmeister to premiere the concerto in March 1904. Burmeister followed the progress of the work attentively, showing much interest and confidence in its musical value. But Sibelius, broke as usual, was forced to hold the premiere concert one month before the aforementioned date, just to get some cash to tide over.  But perhaps, as a big name, Burmeister would probably have attracted more attention and therefore more ticket sales. But he was unavailable to travel to Finland. So  the soloist chosen was Viktor Novácek, professor of violin at the Helsinki Musical Academy. 
To put it mildly, the premiere was a disaster, and Sibelius revised the work. Burmeister was once again unavailable. The new version premiered with Karel Halíř as violinist with the Berlin Court Orchestra in Berlin, Germany, Richard Strauss conducting, in October 13, 1905. Burmeister was greatly offended, and swore never to play the concerto. He never did. Sibelius red-dedicated the work to Ferenc von Vecsey, a Hungarian violinist who was 12.  He championed the work, first performing it when he was 13.

A notable recording is by Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Walter Hendl conducting, in 1935. You can also hear Heifetz here from the third movement with the New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting, in a 1951 performance. As much as I enjoy Heifetz, I prefer David Oistrakh's expressive interpretation, in keeping with the Romantic tradition.