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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Harding & Leonidas Kavakos

Leonidas Kavakos in profile, holding his violin

Brahms and Beethoven are on the menu this evening, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra joined by world renowned violinist Leonidas Kavakos.

Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto for and in collaboration with his friend, the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim. He had been impressed by Joachim’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in 1848; 30 years later, in August 1878, he wrote telling him to expect ‘a few violin passages’. This was an understatement: Joachim received the vast violin part of what would become the concerto’s first movement. Brahms conceived the work on a symphonic scale, originally in four movements, and although the piece ended up in the more conventional three-movement structure, its character and orchestration retain a symphonic spaciousness. On shortening the work, Brahms wrote: ‘The middle movements are bust – naturally they were the best ones! I’m writing a wretched adagio instead.’ The two discarded movements were used elsewhere, one of them in the Second Piano Concerto.

Joachim was a composer as well as a violinist, and he took pains to assist Brahms with the solo part, not least the details of fingerings and bowings. Brahms regularly posted him chunks of the violin part and the two met up frequently, Joachim playing and rewriting, often introducing more virtuoso elements into the music.

Brahms veered between demanding stricter advice from him and ignoring the proffered ideas. Joachim, though exasperated by this inconsistency, persevered, motivated by the prospect of a dazzling result. He pressured Brahms to have the concerto ready for a New Year’s Day Concert in Leipzig in 1879. Brahms felt the strain towards the end of 1878, writing to his publisher: ‘Done! What is done? The violin concerto! No.’

The concerto’s manuscript, even in its ‘final’ state, includes revisions, some of them written in by Joachim – who also composed the first movement’s cadenza. Brahms may have completed the piece for the New Year’s Day concert but he was nervous about conducting the work, and the initial reception was lukewarm. Joachim performed the piece – with yet more revisions – two weeks later at the Vienna Musikverein. The audience was in raptures, applauding Joachim’s cadenza into the coda. Brahms reported ‘a success as good as I’ve ever experienced’.

The Violin Concerto shares much of its temperament with the composer’s Second Symphony. Both are in D major, and both start with a movement in 3/4 time; there are deeper connections, too, in the way the themes are created and developed. The first movement opens with such sweeping nobility that it could be a symphony, but Brahms balances his forces so that the violin soars above the ensemble.

Even so, the ravishing Adagio, with its delicious dissonant twinges, drew indignation from virtuoso Pablo Sarasate: ‘Does anyone imagine ... that I’m going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio?’ The final rondo shows the influence of the Hungarian or hongrois style, a mixture of Hungarian and gypsy folk styles that Brahms had come to love when Hungarian political refugees passed through Hamburg on their way to the USA in 1848.

The popularity of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 owes much to its drama, humour and melodic charm, but, for all its captivating ease, this work was revolutionary. In what has since been regarded as a pivotal moment in western music’s journey between Classical and Romantic aesthetics, Beethoven used a clear programme with corresponding musical material, and a five-movement structure instead of the conventional four. The work also has the capacity to be deeply moving, representing a haven of longed-for solace in Beethoven’s isolated, sound-deprived existence.

Beethoven himself added the title Pastoral to the symphony, which is in F major, the traditional choice for pastoral music. He also emphasised that the work is ‘a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds’, suggesting a more impressionistic than literal approach to his subject-matter.


The first movement, ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside’, opens with a warm, shapely theme, interrupted by a gently insistent wind motif, giving way to a spacious secondary melody. The lilting second movement, ‘Scene by the brook’, includes cadenza-like woodwind solos evoking birdsong, as set out by Beethoven in the score: the nightingale is represented by the flute, the quail by the oboe and the cuckoo by the clarinet.

The comedic third movement is based on Beethoven’s observation of increasingly drunken folk musicians; the bucolic dance frequently gets out of hand, and Beethoven subverts the musical conventions of the time with incomplete phrases and untidy rhythms. This merriment is curtailed by the intervention of the ‘Thunderstorm’, with its timpani-rolls suggestive of thunder and sharp stabs of lightning. But the drama is short-lived and, here at least, Nature is kind, eliciting from the composer a devotional, hymn-like finale: ‘Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’.

© Joanna Wyld

Programme and performers

Johannes Brahms Violin Concerto
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Adagio
3. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace

Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No 6, Pastoral
1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the
Countryside – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Scene by the brook – Andante molto mosso
3. Merry gathering of country folk – Allegro
4. Thunderstorm – Allegro
5. Shepherd’s Song – Cheerful and thankful feelings
after the storm – Allegretto

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra 
Daniel Harding
Leonidas Kavakos violin

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