I’m a devoted classical music listener. Despite the efforts of programmers and hosts to expand the repertoire and educate listeners like me, I confess to a preference for war-horses, especially violin and piano concerti. The latter includes the big four: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn.
In Mendelssohn’s (Op. 64 in E minor), the third movement is especially lively, playful, dramatic, and fast-paced. In the finale, one note caught my attention because its pitch is so high and it is held for what seems like an eternity, so it soars out over the orchestra.
This fascination isn’t unusual. Listeners are often enthralled by a bravura passage, for example the high notes in the Queen of the Night’s aria in The Magic Flute, the tenor aria with nine high Cs in La Fille du Regiment, or the clarinet introduction to Rhapsody in Blue. We could say that such bravura passages for many listeners (including me) are the emotional high point of a piece.
Differentiating Among Virtuosi
When listening to the Mendelssohn, I always pricked my ears to hear how virtuoso violinists approach that incredible high note. Though all give excellent performances overall (at least to my inexpert ear), I hear clear differences in how they handle the high note, with some nailing it, and others reaching for it but not quite making it, or not holding it very long.
I decided to do a bit of research. First, I found the violin score, the last four lines of which I reproduce below. The high note is in the fourth last line of the concerto (first line of my excerpt). It’s a high E (E7), which is the highest practical note violinists can play. It’s a five-eighths note, held a bit longer than the G, a half note, that immediately precedes it. The ff (forte forte) means it is played at maximum volume. Finally, I noticed that the soloist plays that note again, but only as a quarter-note in the scale that concludes the concerto.
I then consulted the music critic David Hurwitz, who recently posted on YouTube a half-hour long discussion of the best and worst recordings of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Then I looked for performances among those he cites as the best that are available on YouTube. One of the benefits of watching a performance on YouTube is that you can see the performer in closeup. In this concerto you will see the violinist moving the fingers of their left hand far up the fingerboard towards their chin to form this note. (All of the violinists whom I show below bow with their right hand.)
I chose three soloists Hurwitz included in his top dozen: contemporary performers Hillary Hahn and Maxim Vengerov and Nathan Milstein (1903 – 1992), a virtuoso of a previous generation. Then I looked for recent performances, not chosen by Hurwitz, that I thought handled the high E less than superbly and found two, Janine Jansen and Sarah Chang. Here are links to all five performances on YouTube:
If you’re interested in hearing the high note, start listening approximately one minute before the end of the concerto. Most performances of the concerto take approximately 28 minutes, except for Milstein at 25.
Finally, I did a little test of my own, something you might expect of a lapsed economist. I used the stopwatch on my phone to measure how long the soloist held the high E. My results were: Hahn and Milstein, 1 second; Jansen, .9 seconds; and Chang and Vengerov .8 seconds. (Notice that Milstein ties Hahn for holding the note the longest, even though his overall performance of the concerto is the shortest.) Yes, I think there are subtle but noticeable differences in how long the violinist holds that note.
I should add, though, that a composer I consulted reminded me that, on any given day, a virtuoso performance is affected by factors such as the conductor’s interpretation of the concerto, the acoustics of the hall, and the response of the audience.
I’ll conclude my study of this bravura passage in the Mendelssohn – a retirement mini-project you might say – with an exhortation to shift your focus from the detail to the big picture and spend a half-hour listening to this wonderful and inspirational concerto.