Historically Informed and Innovative: Kopatchinskaja's Beethoven Violin Concerto

I would like to review a wonderful album: Beethoven’s Works for Violin and Orchestra, released by Naïve Record in 2009. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is the violinist, with Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, whose musicianship and authentic instruments create a clear texture. This is not to draw comparisons with many fantastic recordings, but to discuss one which approaches these works differently, especially the violin concerto.

In the first sign of a special rendition, Kopatchinskaja replaces the conventional triad with an ascending scale, an unusual yet appropriate precursor of the main theme of the first movement.

She has written of how the ideal balance between violin and orchestra is informed by the imagery of her interpretation, “In this concerto I often feel like a small bird flying over a majestic landscape. I take my twists and turns and sometimes even disappear between the clouds.” This was in a fascinating mini-essay A detective’s view on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61 which was inspired by her study of the original manuscript in the Austrian National Library.

Like Kopatchinskaja, we too should be detectives, conscious of the original score. She notes that the Beethoven added free lines below the orchestral score in his own hand. “The manuscript”, she says, “was evidently written in a hurry, and with its many deletions, alterations and alternative versions, it gives the impression of an exuberant written improvisation, an impression which I also try to translate into my interpretation.”

The manuscript is riddled with a series of corrections and alterations made with various pencil and pen marks (whether by Beethoven himself or Franz Clement is uncertain). Having consulted Professor Robin Stowell and studied the original score, Kopatchinskaja observes that the publisher appears to have, for the sake of sales or clarity, watered them down (my words) opting for a sensible, somewhat simplified compromise. Indeed, the British Library has said that Beethoven’s friend and exclusive publisher, the London-based Clementi, “took a somewhat tangential interest in the Violin Concerto”. However, according to its blog, it is the commercially-minded Clementi we can thank for persuading Beethoven to write a version for keyboard.

When the ink dries, a musical work must not be a static monolith, especially when that ink is a copy of the composer’s original pen strokes. Without being so naïve as to wade into the quagmires of publishing, it is true that the sheet music we work from may have significant details and interesting signs left out.

In the first movement, Kopatchinskaja alters the triplets to accentuate the prevailing chord and add interest to the harmonic rhythm, using leap-step cambiata notes galore to create a glorious progression. For example, a descending G minor arpeggio, usually written as repeated, is flipped as to ascend upwards again, creating a sense of symmetry and mirroring within the melody.

The crazily brilliant cadenza is based on Beethoven’s adaption of the violin concerto for keyboard. Paganini-esque chromaticism, chordal double stops, and harmonics lead to a rousing culmination, when the timpani join in the (dubbed over) duet, harking back to the beginning of the first movement.

Or should that be cadenzas? A single violin part which bridges the second and third movements, and exudes an almost raucous spontaneity, again repeated before the return of the third movement's main theme. An otherwise positive review in the Times said they ‘certainly seem a trick too far’, but if they can be played, why show restraint in the presence of the microphone?

Kopatchinskaja has said that “In fact this concerto is a symphony for orchestra and improvising violin". Carl Dahlhaus, in his book Nineteenth-Century Music, argues that “Beethoven’s symphonies represent inviolable musical ‘texts’ whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations”. Dahlhaus then juxtaposes Beethoven’s music with that of his contemporary Gioachino Rossini, whose scores are “a mere recipe for performance, and it is the performance which forms the crucial aesthetic arbiter as the realisation of a draft rather than the exegesis of a text". As a virtuoso and scholar, Kopatchinskaja makes the Beethoven violin concerto both a source of ‘exegesis’ as well as a recipe for performance.

Both Beethoven and Kopatchinskaja, the daughter of musicians in the state folk ensemble of Moldova, arrived in Vienna during formative years in their musical development. She returns to the origins of the work to create a truly original rendition of it. It is an inspired recording which will no doubt inspire many in the future.

The album ends with a single movement of what would be an incomplete violin concerto, in C major, which he wrote in 1792, whilst staying in cramped accommodation, having recently arrived in Vienna. Between the full concerto of 1806 and the earlier incomplete one, Beethoven’s two beautiful ‘romances’ are played with delicacy and sincerity, with a few extra expressive embellishments for good measure.

Samuel Teale Chadwick, October 2020

Further reading:


Samuel has also written:

The 2020 Beethoven Zeitgeist: The Last String Quartets



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