Today, it ranks among the more beloved violin concerti in the repertoire, up there with Mendelssohn’s earlier Violin Concerto in E Minor.
But Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Violin Concerto in D Major had what Michael Christie, the Phoenix Symphony’s music director, calls a rocky start in the late 19th century.
“Tchaikovsky was not a violinist,” Christie says. “So he would work with other people to get suggestions on how to best write for the instrument. And they were really tentative about it.”
Iosif Kotek, who had assisted in the writing of the solo section, refused to play it, as did Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto.
How could such a cherished piece of music fail to win these violinists over? Well, they were the ones who would have had to play it.
And as concertmaster Steven Moeckel of the Phoenix Symphony points out, when first presented to the violinists of Tchaikovsky’s day, the piece was “deemed to be unplayable.”
Auer would later deny that he had ever used the word “unplayable,” telling the trade publication Musical Courier in 1912: “What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined. From this purely aesthetic point of view only, I found some of it impracticable.”
Regardless of whether Auer used the word “unplayable,” the piece’s reputation as one of the more challenging concerti written for the violin remains, which only made it that much more intriguing to the German-born Moeckel more than a century after the fact.
He learned Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major at 17 and first performed it with an orchestra at 18.
“It was my ultimate goal as a teenager,” he says. “I was practicing so much in order to learn it. It’s one of those concertos that you have to play as a violinist, simply because it’s such a brilliant piece of music.
“I would argue that it is Tchaikovsky’s best piece of music, a perfect concerto. But it demands a lot of flexibility on the instrument and a lot of endurance. It’s a long concerto, especially the first movement, which is just a huge amount of notes to learn. And then you have to play the other movements and still be relaxed enough to have your fingers move fast enough for the last movement.”
And the challenge goes beyond the speed at which those fingers need to move.
“It’s just so passionate,” Moeckel says. “There’s no room for any kind of emotional rest. It drives from beginning to end. That’s what makes it so unbelievably fun to play and to listen to, because you manage to capture the spirit of the Russian soul.”
The violinist, who will revisit the piece with the Phoenix Symphony this week, says, “It’s a totally different piece to me than it was then (at 18). At that point, I was struggling to learn the piece. Now, of course, there’s much more room to delve in deeper.
“Tchaikovsky allows you to pour yourself into the music. And that changes how the piece is perceived by the audience, versus concerti by Mozart or Beethoven that are just a tad bit more stoic, maybe.”
It wasn’t just the violinists of Tchaikovsky’s day who had their doubts about the genius of his violin concerto.
“There was a lot of doubt in Tchaikovsky’s mind,” Christie says, “about whether he’d composed a piece that was going to really resonate with the people he needed on his side to give it life, the people who would do those first performances. They didn’t want to go onstage and have a failure that could ruin their careers. And the big critics of the day, who were widely read and whose opinion shaped the outcome of thousands of pieces, were not particularly impressed with those early performances.”
Renowned critic Eduard Hanslick, in reviewing the 1881 premiere in Vienna, which featured Russian violinist Adolph Brodsky as conducted by Hans Richter, labeled it “long and pretentious,” going on to say that it “brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear.”
Over time, however, the piece took hold.
“It took some championing by different violinists,” Christie says. “And then people started to wake up to Tchaikovsky’s artistry.
“A lot of his pieces seemed to hit a public nerve around the same time. You get the ballets and the symphonies all really gaining a lot of momentum, and the ‘Violin Concerto’ is really swept up in there, too.”
And over time, of course, musicianship itself evolved.
“The violin concertos that we look at today were always pushing the envelope,” Moeckel says. “Even Beethoven, his violin concerto created a new type of concerto and a new type of playing that challenged all the known techniques.
“It was the same with Brahms. People said, ‘I’m not going to play that and listen to the oboe play the solo for three solid minutes in the second movement and stand there in front of the orchestra.’ That was something that had never been done. So composers were pushing the limits, as they still do.
“That’s what makes composers great. They have vision beyond what’s in front of them. And I think that became very clear because the music is so great that people are like, ‘Well, if he doesn’t want to play it, I’ll play it.’ That competitive mentality, especially among violinists, really started pushing these pieces into the forefront of the concert stage.”
Even if those advances mean, as Christie says, that “what was once extraordinarily difficult and seemingly impossible is now something people do as a matter of course,” that’s not to say that most people can play Tchaikovky’s Violin Concerto at the level a virtuoso like Moeckel can.
“These types of pieces really do require that extra special level of skill plus maturity,” Christie says, “because obviously, you could play all the notes and not really get to the heart of the piece. But that’s the balance of a virtuoso. They have the ability to do that.”
Christie points to Moeckel’s vocal background as another edge he may have over other violinists in taking on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
“He was a Vienna Choir boy when he was young and did a lot of opera,” Christie says. “And I have always found in his playing that he has that kind of vocal sweep and with a tremendous sense of poise. Especially those tender moments, he can really line those up so beautifully to maximize the expressivity of the piece. So he’s one of these people who has that mix of physical agility, incredible technique and the ability to gauge how the emotion of the piece is progressing.”