It’s official: Maxim Vengerov has been given permission by the Sibelius family to perform the original version of the Sibelius violin concerto next year with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra!
Some of you might brush this off as trivial news. A highly respected virtuoso playing a relatively obscure version of an oft-performed concerto… no big deal, right? I wouldn’t be so dismissive – after all, he’s only like the 3rd person in history to have ever been accorded this privilege.
The landmark work is a staple in many a concert violinist’s repertoire and is hugely popular among audiences, but unknown to most is the fact that the concerto we’ve all come to know and love is actually a revision of an earlier work. Another barely known fact is that somewhere out there exists the piece in its original form – a diamond in the rough that rarely gets to see the light of day.
Historical perspective: The spurned masterpiece
The violin concerto was premiered in Helsinki on February 8, 1904 with Hungarian violin pedagogue Victor Novácek as soloist. Unfortunately, the premiere was a disaster. Sibelius had just finished writing the concerto in time for the performance and Novácek – who was arguably less-than-equipped with the virtuosic chops required by the piece – reportedly failed to pull it off.
It was probably the resulting fiasco that prompted Sibelius to withdraw the publication of the concerto. He proceeded to make significant revisions, removing all parts which he thought didn’t work out, tightening the musical material and providing it more focus. The second version received its premiere in 1905, to critical acclaim. The revised version eventually rose to prominence, becoming one of the most beloved violin concertos in the entire literature, while the original version sank into oblivion, only to be unearthed in 1990 by virtue of a world premiere recording by then 24-year-old violinist Leonidas Kavakos with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.
James Leonard of AllMusic describes the original version of the Sibelius violin concerto as “more expansive, more discursive, more overtly romantic, and more overtly virtuosic.” Upon hearing, fans of the original concerto might be surprised to find that the revisions are more notable than mere re-orchestrations. For those whose ears have yet to touch base with the original version, it’s about time you listened to it:
Maxim Vengerov is set to breathe life to this closeted masterpiece with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Nicholas Carter) on November 28, 2015 in Brisbane.
The manuscript to the original version is heavily secured by the Sibelius estate and one has to ask permission from the family before performing it (be it for a live concert or a recording). Richard Wenn, the artistic director of the Queensland Symphony who also happened to be responsible for BIS’s 1991 marketing initiatives , managed to pull a few strings to sort special permissions from Sibelius’s grandson for this special performance, which incidentally coincides with Sibelius’ 150th birth anniversary.