Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 is among the most performed and recorded works of this genre to have been written in the twentieth century. The composer began conceiving it in 1899 and said he had “wonderful themes” for it. In the autumn of 1903 he began actively working on the composition and announced that he would dedicate it to Willy Burmester, concertmaster of the Kajanus Orchestra, a musician he knew well and who had a successful career in central Europe as a virtuoso violinist. In December 1903 the first two movements of the concerto were completed. The first public performance of the work was on February 8th, 1904 with the Helsinki Orchestra, the soloist was the Helsinki violin professor Viktor Nováček, under the baton of the composer himself. Despite his promise, Sibelius did had not waited for Willy Burmester to work over the piece. Based on the various extant criticisms, letters and memoirs, Nováček did not have enough time and did not handle the extremely difficult technical task very well. Burmester offered him to perform the concerto in Helsinki in November that year, but Sibelius, dissatisfied with the premiere, decided that he had to rewrite the work. In the spring of 1905 he completed the second version, which was shortened and technically lighter especially in the first movement. Due to Burmester’s great preoccupation, the composer suggested the work to the famous Czech violinist Karel Halíř, who lived in Berlin, at which Burmester’s feelings were naturally and he never performed the concerto. The premiere with soloist Karel Halíř was on October 19th, 1905 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Richard Strauss. The concerto gradually became more and more popular in the following decades and especially when the famous Jascha Heifetz recorded the work in the 1930s.
The concerto is composed in three movements. Sibelius brilliantly combines and at the same time contrasts soloistic performance and orchestral texture. Each moment of the violin part is incorporated into the architectural unity of the musical form, and the virtuosic musical material, constructed with great imagination, seems to spring organically from the musical themes, developing their ideas. In the first movement (Allegro moderato), the violin’s brilliance is woven into the ever-increasing intensity of the orchestra. The main theme has a passionate restraint and ‘northern’ tint. The dreamy violin part moves through a virtuosic short solo episode, gradually unfolds, and is filled with passionate declamation, crowned by the cadenza at the end of the movement. The Adagio (Adagio di molto) is one of the most moving and beautiful pages Sibelius produced. The elegy is full of delicate sonic fantasy in which the melody is beautifully brought out. The third movement (Allegro, ma non tanto), built like the first in sonata form, is brilliant, bravura and dramatic. The verve of the folk dance is embodied in the syncopated rhythm of the temperamental finale.
The audience knows the second version of the concerto. In 1991 Leonidas Kavakos with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra recorded the original version and this opened up new horizons for performers and scholars of Sibelius’ work.