10 Top Virtuoso Violin Pieces
Violin Virtuoso Nicolo Paganini
It probably goes without saying that most concertos are a stage for demonstrating the instrumentalist's technical prowess, and the composer's ability to write idiomatically for that instrument. But there are plenty of dazzling compositions that don't come under the concerto category.
Encores are a satisfying way for a violinist to end a performance with a flourish, indeed audiences tend to expect add-ons to a recital. While some may offer up a quiet reflective morsel, others take the opportunity to pull out all the stops and titillate the audience with a rumbustious roller coaster designed to get the audience to stamp their feet and whistle.
Mostly , though not exclusively, these whirlwind bestsellers are concocted by virtuoso violinists themselves, one of the most famous being Paganini. Of course there are hundreds of them, but here's how to get the audience craving and calling for more with some thrilling edge of seat, with just 10 of them.
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
1. Bach Partita No 2 in D Minor - Chaconne
The six sonatas and partitas are the keystone of any violinist worth their salt. The collection is a series of stories collected in a volume to be dipped into. One could liken them to prayers, at least one said every day to feed the soul.
It is not so much that they set enormous physical challenges, though they undoubtedly do, it is that the player must be able to breath. Not the shallow breathing of sleep but the exhalations and inhalations reflecting the whole gamut of emotions from a state of transcendental meditation to the grief of the mourner stopping on the way perhaps to enjoy a little outtake from routine for quiet time, or the hustle and bustle of family life, the cheer of a festival, stoicism when plans go awry, the misery of poverty, and every grade possible captured in between. No wonder so many violinists put public performances to one side until later on in their careers. Simply put: they haven't experienced enough life.
Any one of the set could be picked for this article but I have chosen the D minor as it has the monumental chaconne as its finale which has inspired so many to transcribe, orchestrate and embellish it and study it under the microscope to try and write a solo violin chaconne of their own that aspires to this, unsurpassable movement.
It is not for the fainthearted, this most human of journeys, taking in the wondrous beauty and savagery of existence. Listen to it lying in bed in the dark. You will understand at least some of what Bach had to say.
Paul Hindemith 1895-1963
2. Hindemith Sonata For Solo Violin
Hindemith earned his stripes playing in any musical venue that would have him, including cafes and theatres,1 which allowed him to turn his compositional hand to all sorts of styles.
Following in the footsteps of Bach, the sonata is a reworking of the baroque era's eminent composer's poised and thoughtful style, to be approached with the utmost reverence. Hindemith has a remarkable ability to combine simplicity of line with the highly virtuosic.
The great Julia Fischer used this seemingly impossible solo sonata written in 1917 as a bookend for one of her recorded concerts. Hindemith's gritty demands are tamed here with style and panache. Fischer is firmly in control, not it of her, she never falters and takes it by the scruff of neck. Nevertheless, you do know it's almost off the scale as far as difficulty is concerned, but because she is at one with it, the enjoyment is all the more satisfying.
Almost ironically it's in probably the most comfortable key for the violinist - G minor - sitting right under the hand and as the bottom string is G you can perform from bottom to top, which resonating and filling concert halls. But that's where any thought of ease comes to a halt. You have to be right at the apex of your game to even contemplate looking at the score, never mind having a go at the last pages. It is nothing short of spectacular. Makes you wonder how many hours of practice it took to achieve this stupendous level.
Eugene Ysaÿe 1858-1931
3. Ysaÿe Sonata No 1 For Solo Violin
Ysaÿe was a highly respected Belgian violinist who received the highly charged A minor sonata for piano and violin from César Frank as a wedding present.2
The six Ysaÿe solo violin sonatas were his response and tribute to those of Bach's and written in an exited flurry in 1923.3 The Bach solo sonatas and partitas form the cornerstone of both the violinist's repertoire and own personal and intimate enjoyment, just as are the 48 preludes and fugues to the pianist.
Displaying many new violin techniques not present in Bach, such as sul ponticello (drawing the bow over the bridge), quarter tones rather than the traditional chromatic 12 note scale and playing pizzicato (plucking the string) simultaneously with bowing, they look forward to the Bartok solo sonata to come but inevitably look back to the baroque, quoting Bach himself.
Ysaÿe dedicated each of the sonatas to another contemporary violinist, from one virtuoso to another. His first of the set in G minor acknowledged his debt to Josef Szigeti who he heard paying Bach's own G minor sonata.4 The third movement, Allegretto poco scherzoso is played by Franz Peter Zimmerman.
"(one) must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing" Eugène Ysaÿe
Béla Bartók 1881-1945
4. Bartók Sonata For Solo Violin
Commissioned by Yehudi Menuhi the solo sonata was completed a year prior to Bartók's death in 1945.5 It challenges the violinist in the same manner as a climber scales north face of the Eiger requiring a healthy respect and a real awareness of the dangers that await.
In addition the violinist also has to make sense of each movement direction and the form of the sonata as a whole to avoid the music being merely as series of exhausting hoops to jump through, averting the audience becoming frightened for the player, wondering if they are about to fall off the mountain. The listener does not wish to hear sliding screes as the performer scrabbles and fumbles for metaphorical hand holds whilst gripping onto safety ropes for dear life. Rather, we wish for a the thrill of the free climb, of the supremely confident who can swing and sway their way to the top without missing heartbeats looking down.
Of course we welcome the adrenalin rush but without any accompanying trepidation, and to be able to sit back and enjoy the lyrical qualities within the at times, bombastic, not to be an exercise in ploughing through relatively unscathed. Within the moments of lithe beauty, undeniably the nature of this sonata demands the strength of Samson, the wit of Hercules and the endurance of Atlas. Yet there should be no perception of the adversary to be conquered, the ears firmly attuned to the delicate nuances and creative patterns within the sonata to be lovingly explored and lingeringly highlighted within the exceptional fundamentals. Only then can there be a sense of belonging rather than the overriding feeling that the sonata has broken the soul of the player and taken possession of it.
The sonata is like the exploration of the inner being with bursts of exuberance as it emerges into the outside world. It is as much for individual reflection as public performance, as are Bach's. The virtuosic nature is never for the purpose of showing off, Bartok is merely expressing himself through the complex medium of musical heritage and stretching the boundaries of violin technique.
All the while, Bartók's eye is focused on Bach, dividing the work into four movements and following Bach's basic structure, from the opening sweep of the G minor chord announcing the chaconne, the two note fugue in four voice and winding running passages.
All the difficulties presented have their essential place from the dancing fugue - a violinist tackling four parts at once immediately suggests a certain amount of difficulty - to the concentrated tremolos and trills of the melancolic melodia, and a presto with its scattering of folk melodies and harmonies, a coiled wire tightly winding up this remarkable deeply contemplative work.
‘I regret that I was not able to let him [Bartók] hear it in a truly finished interpretation, for over the years the music has come to speak to me, and I believe all of us, in the deepest musical terms…[The fugue] was perhaps the most aggressive, brutal music I was ever to play.’ Yehudi Menuhin
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
5. Ravel Tzigane
Cleverly Ravel suspends the thrall of the audience by a long introduction. There is a slow dance, a sort of getting to know you, circling round in stereotypical gypsy seduction, teasingly weighing up the potential action before deciding its worth a starter for ten and off we go. And wow, is it a starting gun! It's sprinkled with the usual dare devil trappings. Playing pizzicato with the left hand while in between the pizzicato notes, the bow is bounced. I mean, talk about needing fine motor control and coordination. This work has it in spades.
Here it is played by fellow French violinist, the marvellous Ginette Neveu who allows it space and time as well as producing all the expected special effects.
Read more about Ginette Neveu in my article on fantastic female violinists by clicking here.
Nicolo Paganini 1782-1840
6. Paganini Violin Concerto No 2 'La Campanella'
What can you say about Paganini. who was a master at marketing and shaping a persona? The nineteenth century violin virtuoso eye candy captivated his audiences in plumes of resin, broken bow hairs and strings, with a fiddling fizzle of spiccato, rapidly bouncing the bow in a musical splutter, left hand pizzicato and splaying his huge hands for spread out chords unreachable for the even the most practised violinist religiously following physiotherapy. Stretching more than an octave span still presents immense challenges, but these amazing techniques Paganini displayed for his adoring audiences have become mainstream for today's professionals.
Having overcome these hurdles, which had been developed by an earlier violinist, Pietro Locatelli6, it was the perfect platform for the show-off. Bewitching his ardent followers, Paganini's champagne cork and bubbles style frothed over them with highly embellished easy listening tunes. Hardly the complex notes and long finish of Beethoven, but hey, the odd glass of sparkly, alcoholic or otherwise, cheers the soul.
Paganini starts the last movement of his second violin concerto with one of his most famous melodies, the bell-like La Campanella. The tune is alternated with contrasting episodes, trotting out all his artistry. It has become more popular in the arrangement with piano accompaniment for recitals and there are countless transcriptions of this humdinger for other instruments. Leonid Kogan is the soloist here with his fingers of fun and effortless playing.
Karol Szymanowski 1882-1937
7. Szymanowski Myths - Dryads and Pan
Symanowski himself described his tripartite work for violin and piano:
“Myths – 1. Fountain of Arethusa, 2. Narcissus, 3. Dryads and Pan – three works for violin and piano, my favourite works, very original timbrally and technically, and apart from that it is also good music”.7
They were written for a favourite violinist of his, Pawel Kochanski, for whom he also wrote his two violin concertos.8
Shrouded in heady mists and mysterious wanderings, the three Myths are The Fountains of Arethuse, Narcisse and Dryads and Pan.
The last is a zigzag through trills, harmonics and soaring, impassioned melodies, mirroring the pursuit of the dryads by Pan. It starts nervously, the monotone of the D wavering as the dryads realise they are about to be chased, the following melody evasive and uneasy.
The pan pipe bare harmonics and the volatile urgency of Pan's unbridled quest, using dissonance in the piano part and the fixated lecherous stalking, snaking seamlessly from string to string is a bid to fluster and flush out the nymphs.
The nervy D returns, a dryad has been cornered, the pan pipe sings once more and capitulation comes in the form of quick left hand pizzicato and the music fades away out of sight and sound.
Veteran Russian violinist David Oistrakh brings Szymanowski's mythical scene to life.
Pablo de Sarasate 1844-1908
8. Sarasate Carmen Fantasy
Take popular songs from Bizet's ever popular Carmen, featuring opera's ultimate independent femme fatale, combine them with Sarasate the Magician, and you will need to buckle up and prepare for a switchback of racy energy. Carmen, alluring and dangerous, provoking the desperately captivated Don Juan to uncontrolled jealous destruction is all laid out in the suite.
Don José, unable to recognise he was only ever of fleeting interest is unable to let the manipulative Carmen move on to the next excitement in town, the matador, and is driven to the inevitable murder.
Brilliantly expressed Spanish fallout from Sarasate, himself a celebrated whizz over four strings, takes the familiar arias and ramps them up for a white knuckle ride, the heroic meeting the tragic. Itzhak Perlman is the sure footed goat who easily runs up and down the treacherous craggy mountainside, never putting a hoof wrong.
Camille Saint-Saëns 1835-1921
9. Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccio
Written for Sarasate, Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccio is a favourite for violinists. Saint-Saëns makes you wait for the finale.
Opening with a slow introduction, the violin's mellow tones are highlighted and rather than a breathless dash to the finish, Saint-Saëns take his time to wend his way towards the expected glitzy conclusion.
I could not leave out who some call Jascha Heifetz 'the violinist's violinist', and here he is with his unmistakable vibrato and panache.
Antonio Bazzini 1818-1897
10. Bazzini Dance of the Goblins 1818-1897
Antonio Bazzini has the distinction of being one of those one-hit-wonder composers.
Fellow virtuoso Paganini heard him play the violin as a boy and encouraged the young Bazzini to embark on the concert circuit.9
Dance of the Goblins incorporates the identical razmataz in the modern violinist's toolbox, the ricocheting bow, left hand pizzicato and leaps all at a skittish pace. Maxim Vengerov makes light work of Bazzini's humorous dance and has a fantastic time interacting with his mesmerised audience.
To read about real live people who inspired legends and myths from little people to giants click here.
2 Archive Music
3 Hyperion Records
5 Presto Music
© 2019 Frances Metcalfe