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The definitive top 5 violin concertos

A violinist playing a concerto
A violinist playing a concerto

The beating heart of almost all orchestral music, the violin is also the quintessential solo instrument, with many composers down the years writing brilliant concertos for it. Whilst there are a great many to choose from, however, we wondered what the absolute cream of the crop might be. Here, then is our definite list, which links to both the full works and easy extracts from the pieces, allowing players not quite ready for the full concerto experience to enjoy these masterpieces.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Op,64

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (1. Allegro molto appassionato, 2. Andante, and 3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace) is renowned for its coupling of virtuosity with brilliant and abundant melodic writing.

It is innovative in several ways: instead of opening with an orchestral tutti, the solo violin introduces the main melodic material; movements are joined together without a break; and the cadenza is written out by the composer rather than improvised by the performer.

Its genesis also provided the model for many subsequent concertos, in that the composer collaborated closely with the soloist, Ferdinand David, who provided technical advice during the works’s composition, which took six years to complete.

Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op. 26

Bruch wrote three violin concertos, his first effort being not just the best regarded of the three, but one of the the greatest and most beloved of any violin concerto. It was completed in 1866, but subsequently completely revised with help from celebrated soloist Joseph Joachim.

It is written in three movements (1. Vorspiel: Allegro moderato; 2. Adagio; 3. Finale, Allegro Energico), the first being unusual in that its opening ‘Vorspiel’ is thematically linked to the second movement. That middle movement is particularly admired for its main theme, often considered one of the most beautiful in the violin repertoire. The work is capped by a finale whose exuberant dance-like main melody is variously interrupted by a slower, intensely lyrical idea. The work ends in a blazing final accelerando capped by three grand chords.

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major Op.61

Unsuccessfully premiered in 1806, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was not played again until 1844, many years after the composer’s death. That revival, however, led to it becoming one of the most important works in the violin repertoire.

Written in three movements—Allegro ma non trope, Larghetto, Rondo, Allegro—it is a masterly blend of virtuosity and profundity of expression. The first movement in particular is known for its expansion of conventional norms through its elaborate development and cadenza. The second movement by contrast has a measured and lyrical beauty, whilst the last is a lively rondo with a delightful skipping main theme.

Brahms Violin Concerto Op.77

Brahms’ only violin concerto, composed in 1878, is a cornerstone of violin repertoire. Though following the standard three movement pattern (Allegro; Adagio; Allegro giocoso, ma non trope vivace), the composer originally planned to write four movements, emphasising the symphonic nature of the work, (an element that nevertheless remains an essential feature of the work).

Ever conscious of his lineage, the piece opens with a reference to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, the soloist entering with the timpani after the orchestra introduction. The second movement contains a marvellous oboe melody, which led violinist Pablo de Sarasate refusing to play it, because he didn’t wish to "stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune”! The finale is a brilliant rondo, the folksy main theme written in double-stopped thirds.

Bach Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043

Bach wrote two highly regarded concertos for a single soloist, the concerto in A minor and the concerto in E major. The most beloved of his concerto works and, according to German musicologist Philipp Spitta ‘the finest of the set’ is , however, his Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043), also known as the Double Concerto.

The concerto is known for the richness of its melodic writing, especially in its achingly beautiful middle movement and for its brilliant use of imitative writing between the two soloists.