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Who owns the Sibelius concerto?

Few violin concertos have taken longer to find a public. The work crashed on first performance in 1904 and did not pick up until Jascha Heifetz made the first recording in London, in 1936. In the following years, Ida Haendel, Ivry Gitlis and Gidon Kremer gave astonishing interpretations. Each was then said, within the violin community, to ‘own’ the concerto.

Last night in Paris the ownership question was thrown back into play.

Leonidas Kavakos, winner of the Sibelius Competition and the only man to play both known versions of the concerto, gave a performance of such terrifying intensity and so many blazing risks with Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestre de Paris that it was two Bach encores and ten minutes more before the Salle Pleyel audience would let him go.

Sitting in our row, unknown to the soloist on stage, was Ivry Gitlis, 90 years old, full of the joys of spring and presently being seen in a French feature movie on the Champs Elysees.

Ivry went backstage to pay respects. The look on Leonidas’ face was an amalgam of fear and aspiration. Ivry put his fears to rest with a few fine words. There was a sense of a bow being passed.

Is there any other concerto in which such a transmission could still take place?





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  1. Leonidas the Greek God! His recent recording of the
    Beethoven sonatas is fantastic!

  2. Here’s a video interview with Kavakos, recorded in October last year in Helsinki. He was there to conduct and play with the Finnish RSO. He talks about the Sibelius competition in 1985, among other things.

  3. His Shostakovich first with Chailly in Madrid was an astonishing experience.

  4. Kavakos’ incandescent performance of the Shostakovich 1st concerto at the Barbican, with Gergiev and the LSO, a year or so ago, will stay in my memory forever. Spontaneous standing ovation for electrifying music making. Such a shame it wasn’t recorded for LSO Live.

    • It is a real pity to learn that Mr Kavakos will not perform the Shostakovich 1 again for this season and the next (ie until end of 2013-2014 season). I have heard so many admiring reviews of his excellent performance with Gergiev. I was at the Salle Pleyel for the April 25 Sibelius performance.

      I did not know about Mr Kavakos until recently (yes, I hear you ask – on which planet was I hiding?) and was about to purchase tickets for Vadim Repin’s performance later in May, when the Salle Pleyel online system alerted me to an earlier performance by Mr Kavakos which suited my schedule better. I was so afraid I made a mistake in committing to a performer I did not know that I spent a bit of time researching his work….well…after last week’s performance – nuff said! Such a gifted, simple elegant musician – although I wonder about the long hair.

      Have I missed his “prime”….it looks as if he is turning to conducting now….I hope he gets to be half as good as he is a violinist. Good luck to him.

  5. Tully Potter says:

    Well, Norman, your history of the work is somewhat simplistic. Actually as early as 1910 Franz von Vecsey was playing it so well that Sibelius re-dedicated it to him. But if anyone could be said to ‘own’ the work it would be Anja Ignatius, the only violinist who actually studied it with the composer. Her wartime recording has always seemed to me to be the best. In fact five ladies were among the first eight violinists to record the work: Ignatius, Barinova, Neveu, Bustabo and Wicks, all of them admirable. I have personally never associated Kremer with it, although I am sure he plays it well enough. Kavakos? The times I have experienced him in the concert hall, I have struggled to hear him. He always strikes me as one of the many children of the CD age. There are quite a few of them about… David Oistrakh would surely go on most violin fanciers’ list of great Sibelians. And you could certainly hear him against an orchestra.

    • Tully, your dismissal of Kavakos as a one of the “children of the CD age” is ungenerous. I am 65, and have heard the concerto played by countless performers – Ida Haendel particularly stands out in my memory; a magisterial account. Kavakos is a great performer, and up there with the best of them, past and present.
      There is a danger of seeing the past through rose tinted glasses (or whatever the aural equivalent is), and I don’t think anyone would want to be seen as a dinosaur!

  6. I heard Kavakos play the Sibelius with the National Symphony (and Osmo Vanska) 5-6 years ago, and it was astoundingly good. So no surprise here.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      Seconded. I recall accompanying him in this concerto. I found his interpretation marvelous. My colleagues, too, were enthusiastic in their praise. And on occasions when I have listened to him from the audience, I never had trouble hearing him above the orchestra.

  7. Good for Kavakos. To my thinking, Heifetz is a hard act to follow, but not impossible.

    I heard the Sibelius performed last week by an outstanding flautist, DB of the Met Opera Orchestra. As much as I appreciate his pushing the envelope, I was reminded how very different the flute and violin are in terms of nuance and expression. It does not seem feasible to recreate the architecture we hear in the finest readings of this piece on any other instrument than the violin.

  8. harold braun says:

    There were many more recordings during the fifties and sixties.Just some of the best here:Stern/Beecham/RPO,
    D.Oistrakh/Ormandy/Philadelphia;Menuhin/Boult;Ferras/Karajan/BPO;Francescatti/Bernstein/NYPO;Perlman/Leinsdorf/BSO: Heifetz recorded the concerto before in 1934 with Stokowski and the Philadelphia for RCA Victor,but the recording was not released because of artistic differences between the two musical giants with giant egos!Thankfully the Philadelphia Orchestra unearthed this desirable performance in its 100 anniversary set in 2000.Gorgeous performance!!!r

  9. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    There is a simply wonderful performance on a Philips disc that couples the Walton Concerto by Akiko Suwanai. This is well worth a listen. The recording, especially on SACD, is close to the soloist, but the playing is impeccable and quite exciting, also deeply felt.

  10. James Forrest says:

    I cannot refrain from a few comments. Kremer COULD play the work, at least for the microphones. There is a very fine EMI recording from 3 decades ago with Muti, made in Philadelphia and coupled with an equally good Schumann. One would not think these artists suited to those works, perhaps, but even the blind squirrel . . . . Oistrakh, certainly, but surely his finest statement of the music is the EMI recording he made with Ehrling. I was glad to see Mr. Braun mention Francescatti, and I would like to mention Accardo with the late Sir Colin. And, 2 recordings I always keep at hand for interpretation if not technical prowess are the Menuhin/Boult and the Gitlis/Horenstein.

    Tully is right (as so often–vexing, isn’t it ? :) –about Ignatius. Her former son-in-law sent me that recording only a few years ago; Tully has lived with it longer. An unequalled sense of “rightness”. And so many women have played the work well (we lack a Maud Powell recording!), Wicks, Marcovici, and my personal favorite among “modern” recordings: Miriam Fried with Kamu conducting. I’ve always wondered why Morini did not play the work? The late Henry Roth of Los Angeles said to me, “well, she could not have managed it.” Artur Balsam’s response to that when I quoted Henry was “rubbish” ! I think the music just did not appeal to her.

    And Heifetz . . . I recall standing outside Orchestra Hall on a blustery Chicago Saturday, hoping to sneak in for the recording sessions. RCA thought they should get Leinsdorf. Heifetz said Assoc. Cond. Hendl would do just fine . . . and he did. But I could not crack security worthy of the post 9/11 era. Endless gossip that Reiner refused to conduct Sibelius, that he would no longer work with Heifetz, etc. In point of fact, he was on the East Coast, had other mid-Winter engagements and was entirely happy to let his associate mind the podium. I heard Reiner conduct the work with Victor Aitay. A notable performance in every way.

    Fortunately a year or so later I heard Heifetz in his last concert performance of the work, in Los Angeles, Izler Solomon conducting. An incredible experience–not my last of Heifetz, fortunately, but one of the greatest.

    • “Fortunately a year or so later I heard Heifetz in his last concert performance of the work, in Los Angeles, Izler Solomon conducting. An incredible experience–not my last of Heifetz, fortunately, but one of the greatest.”

      How lucky you were.

      For many years I refused to listen to any other violin player than Heifetz. I had become so exhausted by the sturm und drang of what seemed the more popular style of playing. Recently, I have begun to listen to others and then to Heifetz, and am constantly surprised and amazed at his interpretations. It is as though he enters the mind of the composer, to share the inner structure of the piece; while, of course, using the most exquisite technique.

      • James Forrest says:

        It was my privilege, Ms. Brown, to hear him often . . . first in recital in the mid-1950s, the Sibelius I mentioned, a number of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts usually presented in Hollywood, and at the opening concert of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where he and the young Mehta presented the Beethoven Concerto. I still have the program! I agree with you, and I cannot agree with those listeners who find him cold, a superficial interpreter, or a poor colleague. Not all performances were equally fine, and not all of his recordings are equally fine. But the great majority strike me as absolutely first rate and I think he was in many respects the most remarkable violinist of the 20th Century. Not necessarily my favorite . . . but amazing.

        I was not in California at the time of his final recital, but 2 of the performances I most cherish are the Franck and Strauss Sonatas as he played them with Brooks Smith on that occasion.

        • There is a small yet significant niche for those, such as you, who have experienced Heifetz firsthand. The most well-known favorable book is Sherry Kloss’ “Through My Eyes”. If you were to collect your impressions and recollections into an article or blog, there are many, such as myself, who would treasure such an effort.

          It had been my dream at one point, to try to study with Heifetz, even though I am just a flute player. I did even write to him, but by that time, it was too late, as he was gone a few months later.

  11. Yes, Kavakos is wonderful

    I have heard him live in the UK 6 times, including the first live performance outside Finland of the original version of the Sibelius in Feb 1999 (Lahti O under Vanska) – in Symphony Hall Birmingham

  12. Michael Redmond says:

    I love this concerto. Years ago, I heard Ricci play it. Volcanic. The conductor looked like he was in fear of his life. Of all the performances I’ve heard, this one sticks with me.

  13. Patrick Gundry-White says:

    No single violinist “owns” the concerto, and the greatest performance is a live performance, heard in a concert hall……there are always going to be performances and recordings that listeners will hold close to their hearts and swear undying allegiance to – long live live music!

    • I agree PG-W and would go further and ask everyone of any modest level of intelligence not to perpretrate this ghastly and ugly Americanised abuse of the word “own”. It is often used in a sporting context – a frequent winner of a tennis tournament is sometimes said to “own” it and in an even more grating context someone who regularly beats another in a sport is said to “own” that person!

      The English language is beautiful and varied and there are much more elegant ways of describing one’s view that a particular violinist is/was the best interpreter of a particular concerto than to say he “owns” it, let alone that “ownership” can be “thrown back into play”! I can think of no more elegant retort than – ugh!

      Does Jonas Kaufmann now “own” Parsifal, Wagner, Verdi and, for all I know given his staggering talent, Gluck, Stockhausen and possibly Stephen Sondheim? I understand that, on the distaff side, Katherine Jenkins “owns” opera.

  14. “He looks like Bilbo Baggins!” – my 7 year old :) Great player.

  15. Andrew R. Barnard says:

    I love my Shaham/Sinopoli reading because the conductor and soloist combine perfectly. It’s a fresh, spontaneous interpretation that presses forward while still capturing the misty, Finnish feel. Perfect. DG’s superb sonics add volumes. Anyone heard it?

  16. Keith McCarthy says:

    Has no one listened to Christian Tetzlaff’s 2002 recording of the Sibelius with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard?

  17. harold braun says:

    I also like very much the Mullova/Ozawa/BSO recording on Philips.Intense but always controlled,and the finale goes along at a terrific lick.

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