Hyperion Records

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 8
The Violin Concerto in D minor was written in 1881–2, seventeen-year-old Strauss’s final year at the Ludwigsgymnasium, the finale not being completed until after the summer holiday following his graduation. The work was dedicated to Strauss’s violin teacher Benno Walter (1847–1901), concertmaster of the Bavarian Court Orchestra and his father’s first cousin, who on 14 March 1881 led a Munich performance of the teenager’s String Quartet in A major. Before beginning his concerto in earnest—he had been making preliminary sketches since 1878—Strauss made sure that he heard virtuoso pieces by Ernst, Spohr and Léonard. Scored for a classical orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings), the concerto is well composed in many ways but has acquired a reputation for being diffuse. It is not difficult to diagnose why: Strauss realizes that he needs to write some display music for Walter, but in the opening movement these bravura passages, unlike those in Busoni’s concerto, do not advance the musical argument. The listener is confronted at several points by an uneasy amalgam of surface activity and structural stasis, when some sort of conflict or interaction between soloist and orchestra is needed.

The Allegro is launched by a peremptory theme presented by the orchestra and after quite a brief tutti the solo violin enters. The second theme is nicely lyrical and later in the movement there is a third theme group related to the second, before the peremptory opening theme reappears. The writing for horn is superb, as one might expect from a young composer who heard the instrument being practised at home every day. It is a pity that Strauss did not return to this opening movement to revise it, as he proved in his first Horn Concerto—dating from more or less the same period—that he could fulfil all the necessary requirements. No gremlins afflict the second and third movements, which are successful in their youthful way. The Lento ma non troppo, in classic ABA song form, is lovely—again the horn writing is especially fine. The finale is a delightful rondo which quotes some of the material from the opening movement.

The Violin Concerto was first aired at the Bösendorfer Hall in Vienna on 5 December 1882, during a chamber recital by Benno Walter and pianist Eugenie Menter—who stepped aside so that Strauss could accompany the concerto himself. ‘The hall was reasonably full thanks to the complimentary tickets’, the eighteen-year-old reported to his parents, ‘and my concerto was very well received: applause after the first F major trill, applause after each movement and at the end two curtain calls, Walter and Menter otherwise had only one. Both played very well, and at least I didn’t make a mess of the accompaniment.’ The great critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that the concerto ‘betrays a great talent’; in later years he was not to be so kind to Strauss. The recital was repeated in Munich on 8 February 1883. The concerto was not heard with orchestra until 4 March 1890, when Walter played it at a Gürzenich concert in Cologne, conducted by Franz Wüllner, an early champion of Strauss. The composer himself first directed it on 17 February 1896, at the Liszt Society in Leipzig, with the future conductor Alfred Krasselt as soloist, and they took their joint interpretation to Vienna. That October, Franz Mannstaedt conducted two Berlin Philharmonic performances within a fortnight, with Krasselt and Waldemar Meyer as soloists. The work was published by Joseph Aibl in 1897. Despite all this exposure, the concerto did not find a niche in the pantheon; and the great violinists with whom Strauss worked as a conductor—including Kreisler, Busch and Szigeti—did not take it up.

from notes by Tully Potter © 2014

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