From the thrilling, raw energy of virtuosic concertos to the tenderest chamber miniatures, the violin rules the roost. One moment, the violin can be a dazzling solo instrument with ego to match, or it can blend beautifully with other instruments to create magical textures.
There’s nothing the violin can’t do. It can swing with jazz groups, cavort with riotous folk bands, and, on its own, express melancholy like no other instrument can. No wonder composers have reserved some of their best melodies for the instrument.
The violin’s pedigree is impressive; violins as we know them today were made 500 years ago, and a golden age spanned decades during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Even today, violin makers, or luthiers, as they’re known, puzzle over the craftsmanship of Antonio Stradivari, whose Stradivarius violins are still regarded as the very finest.
But which masterpieces should you head for to hear the violin at its very best? We’ve brought together a collection of ten contrasting works to give you a picture of the violin in all its guises.
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending (1914)
Is there a better instrument to imitate the flutterings and swoopings of a bird? Vaughan Williams’s beautiful pastoral masterpiece complements a sumptuous orchestral accompaniment with a virtuosic violin part that takes the violin right up to the stratosphere. The composer makes the most of its emotional potential with poignant folk-song-style melodies. Simply put, the English countryside in music.
Recommended recording: Tasmin Little, BBC Philharmonic, Andrew Davis (Chandos CHAN10796)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto (1806)
Arguably the finest violin concerto ever written, Beethoven conjures up one of the sweetest-sounding slow movements in all of music. Simple, unadorned, but breathtaking, Beethoven seems to understand and get inside the violin’s soul. The final movement is a rollicking dance with oodles of bucolic charm.
Recommended recording: Midori (violin); Festival Strings, Lucerne (Warner Classics)
Paganini: Caprices (1802-1817)
Paganini was a showman as much as a musician, and his fiendish Caprices put even the best players to the test. Every possible technical hurdle is thrown down in these white-hot miniatures, from near-impossible finger stretches to multiple double-stopping, simultaneous trills and melodies, and pizzicato with both hands. Paganini invented challenges that no one knew existed but still managed to make them sound fantastic!
Recommended recording: Ning Feng (Channel Classics)
Bach: Violin Partita No. 2 (1717–1720)
Head to the magnificent Chaconne movement to hear the violin at its most majestic and poised. There are many who argue that this piece is the finest ever written for the instrument. That’s a bold claim, but then what Bach does with the simplest of opening bars is extraordinary—with just a small musical cell, Bach crafts one of the most inventive pieces of music of all time, traversing the technical and musical gamut.
Recommended recording: Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Partitas by Christian Tetzlaff
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (c. 1617)
A thrilling ride from start to finish, this set of four concertos for violin and string orchestra shows every side of the baroque violin. Vivaldi wrote hundreds of violin concertos, all of them full of musical surprises, but these gems contain some of his most inspired melodies and dizzying technical challenges. By conjuring up all four seasons in the years, Vivaldi takes his audiences on as much of a visual journey as a sonic one.
Recommended recording: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics)
Elgar: Violin Concerto (1910)
Now we go to the 20th century and to one of the instrument’s most romantic utterances. A sprawling concerto of over 45 minutes, Elgar’s concerto shows the composer at his most personal and complex. Some say it’s a superior work to the Brahms Violin Concerto, which you should also seek out. In any case, Elgar thought it among his best works: ‘It’s good! awfully emotional! too emotional, but I love it,’ he once said of the work.
Recommended recording: Elgar: Violin Concerto, Stenhammar: 2 Sentimental Romances by Triin Ruubel, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (Sorel Classics)
Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 (1942, arr. for violin, 1943)
Arranged from his Flute Sonata, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev here contrasts the violin’s extreme lyricism with an abrasive, rhythmic quality. At times, Prokofiev takes the instrument to its barest, huskiest whisper, while at others he brings out its full-blooded tone on some of the most glorious melodies ever written for the instrument. It’s full of humour, horror, and love.
Recommended recording: Rosanne Philippens (violin), Julien Quentin (piano), St Gallen Symphony Orchestra/Otto Tausk
John Williams: Schindler’s List theme (1993)
Here’s a chance to hear the soulful, mournful side of the violin in an extract from one of John Williams’s greatest soundtracks. Which other instrument could conjure up the horrors of the Holocaust more than the violin, beloved by so many Jewish musicians? John Williams shows himself to be a melodic genius with a tune that embraces so many emotions: anguish and loss, but warmth, reassurance, and hope, too.
John Williams won an Oscar for Schindler’s List score
Strauss: Four Last Songs
A bit of a wild card here, but Richard Strauss gorgeous late songs for soprano and orchestra feature some breath-taking moments for solo violin, performed by the leader of the orchestra. Head to the penultimate ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ for one of the most magical solo moments for the violin, with its words: ‘Now this day has fatigued me, and my most arduous desire shall receive kindly the starry night like a tired child…’.
Recommended recording: Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig (Philips 4758507)
Haydn: String Quartets
We’ve named all of Haydn’s string quartets here because there isn’t a dud one among them. Fizzing with energy, Haydn brings four string instruments (two violins, viola, and cello) into a glorious union that other composers have rarely matched. Haydn will make you laugh out loud, sing and dance with joy, and yet quietly weep. And all through the power of the violin, its emotions are always at the very surface.
Recommended recording: Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 74, Nos. 1–3, by Maxwell Quartet (Linn Records)