“Music says that which cannot be said, but which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo
When a composer and a musician are both emotionally and musically in tune, the result can be an unforgettable recording that speaks to your soul. Such heart-felt performances usually manifest in glorious interpretations that create some of the most legendary, memorable, mind-blowing and totally magical moments in musical history.
Such performances give you the sense that the musician really understood what the composer wanted the listeners and audience to feel and experience. As Beethoven, (played to perfection by Gary Oldman) so eruditely stated in the film Immortal Beloved:
“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.”
I’ll probably post these pairings as and when I become struck by their brilliance. For my first example I feel compelled to share a performance by the late French violin virtuoso, Christian Ferras.
I recently learned of his existence (I know right, how can a violinist not have heard of Christian Ferras), and I’ve been completely captivated by his talent and romantic Gallic style. For me, he’s up there with Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Perlman. This has been a musical discovery to relish and to cherish.
I was impressed with many of his performances, but the one that stood out the most was his vintage recording of the melancholy Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. There are many wonderful recordings of this lyrical, challenging and thrilling work, but none have reduced me to rubble in quite the same way as Monsieur Ferras!
My emotional defences were penetrated and disarmed by the honest, visceral and virtuosic nature of this particular mid 1960’s performance, under the baton of the young Indian maestro Zubin Mehta.
I’ll save the superlatives for later, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy their outstanding music making:
You may not agree with my musings after listening and viewing, (not everyone does, as per this review in Gramophone), but to me this sublime rendition is full of beauty, passion and pathos. In the Adagio di molto he has tears streaming down his face. Maybe he was suffering from a broken heart and the music ‘spoke’ to him. It oozed out of his eyes and his bow, his fingers and his soul via his Stradivarius.
There is a mournful purity to his sound that cannot be matched. Sibelius and Ferras is truly a match made in heaven.
Perhaps the ‘dark’ melody of the Sibelius violin concerto was what resonated with Ferras’s lugubrious temperament. The Allegro moderato (1st movement) and the allegro, ma non troppo (3rd movement) are exhilarating and electrifying.
You can see that he is deeply connected to the soul of Sibelius and to the music. Everything is there for me; flawless technique infused with fire and emotion that produces such wonderful colours, phrasing and nuances that take me to the stratosphere…
I think it helps to understand why this is such a powerful, timeless performance when you know that Sibelius poured his love of the violin into this now popular and widely performed concerto in the classical violin repertoire.
“Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” ~ Jean Sibelius (diary entry from 1915 aged 50)
Jean Sibelius (8th December 1865 – 20th September 1957)
As a young man Sibelius had dreams of being a violin virtuoso and could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but his course changed after he failed his audition for the Vienna Philharmonic due to stage nerves. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his only violin concerto, as an expression of that deeply held, but ultimately thwarted dream.
What may have felt like a disaster at the time may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His true gift however, was expressed through his writing of music. He may not have made such an impact on the world had he stuck to performance alone, but his compositions will never fade.
Violinist Dean Wang gives his take on the Sibelius Violin Concerto:
An icy image of nature is a good to have in mind when listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, completed in 1903 and revised in 1905. The reason for revision is that the 1904 premiere was largely unsuccessful since the concerto proved too difficult. The 1905 version is considerably less challenging and also perhaps less cluttered.
The concerto starts with soft strings supporting a tranquil and noble solo violin melody. As the music continues, the violin grows more impassioned and suddenly drops from the highest to the lowest registers of the instrument. The violin part grows more and more virtuosic as the orchestra is given an increasingly active role. After a dark second subject in the orchestra, a passionate motif played in parallel sixths in the extreme upper register of the violin, and then a “travelling” theme in the orchestra, the orchestra stops, the exposition (the first part of a traditional sonata form movement) ends, and the solo violin begins an extensive and extremely virtuosic cadenza.
In this sonata-form movement, the cadenza takes on the role of development (the middle section of the sonata form where the composer takes existing musical ideas and transforms them in inventive and interesting ways). The recapitulation (a varied repetition of the exposition) starts even before the cadenza ends, easing us back into the first melody. The movement closes in a brilliant coda with virtuosic violin octaves and inspired counterpoint fusing previously heard themes together.
After the cold intensity of the first movement, the concerto’s second movement provides some degree of relaxation after a melancholic introduction in the winds. We now hear a warm, singing melody in the violin’s lowest register accompanied by horns and bassoons. The largely lyrical movement provides contrasts excellently with the brilliance and relentlessness of the outer two.
The third movement follows the adagio with relentless dance rhythms; some critics note that these “long-short-short-long” rhythms are similar to those found in polonaises, a popular type of dance from Poland. The connection to dance is made even clearer by Sibelius having reportedly described the movement as a “danse macabre” — a dance of death. The dance is combined with intense virtuosic elements in the violin. The violin’s parallel octaves coupled with heavy orchestration bring the dance to a close.
The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius’s heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.
Christian Ferras was known to have been plagued with lifelong depression, a condition that tragically drove him to commit suicide on 14th September 1982 (aged 49) at the height of his career.
He was one of the pre-eminent violin virtuoso’s of the late 20th century, but his untimely death seems to have curtailed his stardom in a way that never happened with his contemporaries. He just wasn’t around long enough.
Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin were both taught by the Romanian genius George Enescu, and performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto together:
I’m doing my bit to raise awareness of his recordings; such a talent should never be forgotten.
I’d love to hear what you think. Does this performance get inside you like it did me? If not, are there others that grab you in a similar way as the one I have waxed lyrical about between Ferras and Sibelius?