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The Best Violin Concerti of the 20th Century

By Reza Shayesteh

AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Author

 

When thinking of the great violin concerti, we tend to prioritize the classical and especially romantic concerti (and for good reason, these concerti are incredible!). However, so many of the best — and my personal favorite — violin concerti came in the twentieth century. 


What characterizes a twentieth-century violin concerto? While I hate to generalize, I would say that pieces from this period, especially toward the end, tend to be more avant-garde or esoteric. Many pieces on this list may not lend themselves to “easy listening” and sometimes even require several listens to understand their genius. I encourage any cynics to give these pieces a few chances before completely writing them off — I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve initially considered a piece to be just “a bunch of sounds coming from the instrument” before coming around after the third or fourth listen. This is not the rule though: there are plenty of concerti on this list that have truly beautiful melodies at their center. 


So, let’s jump into some of the greatest violin concerti of the twentieth century, from earliest to latest. 


(Note: I include some of my favorite recordings of these pieces. Where possible, I tried to include recordings from closer to the time of composition and modern recordings. I was also constrained to what is on YouTube.)


Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 (1904-5)

This beast of a concerto by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is by far the most well-known and performed of any of the pieces on this list. It is a true test of virtuosity for any violinist and is 40 minutes of fire and passion. I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, but I am still continuously surprised by the drama that Sibelius creates in every note. If you have a moment to spare, I’d like to draw your attention to the end of this concerto’s first movement, where Sibelius has the solo violinist playing the notes A, C, and F in a slow triplet rhythm in several octaves. 

When I heard this piece for the first time, I expected Sibelius to end the movement with the fourth octave of this repeated phrase — but he doesn’t. The phrase comes so close to finishing itself that you can almost hear the high F in the back of your ear, but right when you think you think the movement will conclude, he extends it with almost three minutes of the most intense and passionate music ever written, full of forte octaves and arpeggios. Every time I hear the Sibelius concerto, I am still hit with this electrifying surprise. It feels so rebellious, even a little bit “punk” of Sibelius.


Some of my favorite recordings: 


Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D (1931)

This piece of music is not performed as often as some of the others, but I must confess that it is my favorite violin concerto of all time. The structure of this concerto is a little bit different from the norm. It begins with a lively “Toccata”  then goes to two hauntingly beautiful arias for the solo violin in the middle, and a final Cappricio at the end. This concerto might be a little bit strange to the ear if you’re not familiar with neoclassical music, but if you spend enough time with this piece, there are moments of such incredible honesty that I have yet to see in any other piece of music I’ve ever heard, especially in the two arias. 


Some of my favorite recordings:

If you (like me) just can’t get enough of this concerto, there is a lovely black and white ballet set to the music choreographed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Here’s a taping of that if it interests you: Stravinsky Violin Concerto (Balanchine)


Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1939)

This is another personal favorite of mine. The first two movements are sweet and passionate melodies while the third is a much shorter and angry piece of music. It is much more of a “traditionalist piece,” which was a welcome change from the twelve-tonal, modernist music that was being written at the time, especially in America. The colors that Barber creates are overwhelmingly warm and emotional. I particularly enjoy some of the tutti parts he wrote for the first movement. This is maybe the most accessible piece on this list for newer fans of classical music. 


Some of my favorite recordings:


Dimitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77  (1955)

No list of the greatest violin concerti of the twentieth century would be worth its salt if it didn’t include the first Shostakovich concerto. This piece was written at a very strange time in the history of music (and of Russia), during the Zhdanov Doctrine (which I encourage everyone to read about further in-depth here). When the premiere finally took place (7 years after its completion!) with legendary violinist David Oistrakh as the soloist, it was a massive success. The concerto is truly a masterpiece. It is considered to be the first piece to utilize the DSCH motif that later came to characterize Shostakovich's work (click here if you’d like to learn more about that).

The DSCH motif

Some of my favorite recordings: 


Julia Perry: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1963-1968)

This piece is probably the least well-known on the list. It faded into obscurity before even being given a chance. Its premiere never even happened in Perry’s lifetime (or, if it did, it was never documented). But the piece is truly incredible. The only recording online that I could find of this genius piece of music, which I have linked below, is with violinist Roger Zahab as the soloist accompanied by the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Never fear, though — a brand new recording of this piece will come out in March 2024 featuring Grammy-nominated violinist Curtis Stewart accompanied by New York City’s Experiential Orchestra under the direction of Grammy award-winning conductor James Blachly.



Phillip Glass - Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987)

This piece is the newest on the list. It marks an important shift in Glass’ career, as it was the first major piece that he wrote for a non-theatrical setting (i.e., not an opera, which “put him on the map”). The whole piece is incredible, but where I think its true soul shines through is the second movement. It plays with the idea of repetition in a really sensitive and gentle way, so much so that, in renditions by great violinists, I can hear all the different statements that Glass wanted to convey in each repetition of the melody. 


One of my favorite recordings: 

 

Reza Shayesteh is a senior at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In addition to his studies, he is a student violinist and serves as concertmaster of the Johnstown Symphony Youth Orchestra and his high school’s orchestra. He has always had a deep passion for classical music, ballet and modern dance, and opera. He joined AppreciateOpera.org as a contributing columnist in 2024.

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It is such pleasure to witness the knowledge and palpable passion for classical music by young individuals contributing to this amazing website. In an era where most young adults can only express their opinions and passions in two to three sentences (at best) via social media, reading thoughtful articles such as the present is a treasure to cherish.

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