The concerto is the ultimate showcase of musical virtuosity, where soloist and orchestra compete in a compelling musical dialogue. The soloist’s part is written to impress, to explore the bounds of technical ability, and often includes spectacular cadenzas and a cornucopia of extended techniques. From Bach to Shostakovich, the violin concerto is omnipresent and prolific in the classical repertoire. Scroll down to explore our selection of the top 10 best violin concertos featuring the greatest works in the repertoire by composers including Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.
10: Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto In B Minor
Written in 1880, Saint-Saëns’s violin concerto is as mesmerising to listen to as it is beastly to perform. Dynamic and explosive from the start, the soloist commands attention immediately with a brooding, marcato theme that climbs to stratospheric heights, finishing in an extensive passage of jaw-droppingly rapid semiquavers that conclude the first movement. Light relief comes in the way of a slower middle movement, before the technical fireworks begin again for the thrilling finale.
9: Brahms: Violin Concerto In D Major
Brahms’ only violin concerto was modelled on the profound abilities of his violinist friend, Joseph Joachim. With this in mind, Brahms took an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to this concerto: featuring breakneck cadenzas (with one written by Joachim himself) that require mind-blowing dexterity. This violin concerto, one of the greatest in the repertoire, is a feast for the ears. As for Brahms, why write two of something when you’ve nailed it the first-time round?
8: Berg: Violin Concerto
Not your average violin concerto in many ways. Berg reifies the traditional concerto form: the influence of dodecaphony (12-tone music) is manifest in both the orchestral accompaniment and the beastly soloist part. The result is an unusual soundworld that makes this work all the more intriguing. Berg’s masterful fusion of traditional and innovation makes his stunning concerto eligible for our list.
7: Paganini: Violin Concerto No.2 In B Minor
The name synonymous with violin virtuoso: Paganini. He is perhaps more well known as a virtuoso instrumentalist than a composer, but his violin concerto, one of the greatest in the repertoire, is a masterclass in extended techniques and technical pyrotechnics. This culminates in the third movement ‘La Campanella’ where Paganini instructs a myriad of extended techniques: left-handed pizzicato, double stopped harmonics and string changes so fast the bow becomes a blur. It takes a brave soloist to take this one out for a spin, but when done right, it’s astounding.
6: Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1 In A Minor
Shostakovich’s turbulent relationship with Stalin’s totalitarian regime is well-documented. His political angst engendered some of the most emotionally stirring music ever written, and his violin concerto is no exception. Written in 1947 but not performed until 1955, the music shouts of his quiet torment. A lamenting first movement opens to a strident second. As the solo violin wrestles against the orchestra, Shostakovich’s musical signature, the ‘DSCH’ motif, is weaved into the hauntingly beautiful melody.
5: Sibelius: Violin Concerto In D Minor
For the only concerto he ever wrote Sibelius selected the violin. The soloist’s sentimental yet haunting melodies pierce through the low, rumbling orchestral accompaniment. This dark, shadowy quality persists through all three movements, enhanced by the profound technical challenges Sibelius demands of his soloist. Yet in the right violinists’ hands, dusky lyricism prevails over technical fireworks in one of the greatest violin concertos.
4: Beethoven: Violin Concerto In D Major
This list would be not complete without Beethoven’s exceptional violin concerto. Surprisingly for such a prolific composer, this is Beethoven’s only violin concerto, but is one of such quality that it has been canonised as a one of the greatest in the repertoire, and a rite of passage for any violinist. A synthesis of Romantic lyricism and technical prowess that culminates in a fiery finale; featuring dazzling extended cadenzas and beautifully crafted melodies. We’re out of superlatives, just give it a listen.
3: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto In D Major
This violin concerto has previously been termed ‘un-violinable’ due to the sheer technical demands of the part. Violinists of the highest quality, Leopold Auer, Karl Davydoc, Iosif Kotek and Emile Sauret, all declined invitations to perform it. Just as the concerto was about to be cast aside, Leopold Damrosch thankfully stepped up to the mark in 1879 and Tchaikovsky’s divine violin concerto, one of the greatest in the repertoire, has been enchanting audiences ever since.
2: Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto In E Minor
A concerto of epic proportions: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto In E Minor, one of the best in the repertoire, is endlessly popular with audiences. The violin takes control immediately with a sweeping, theatrical opening theme, which is dramatically exchanged between orchestra and soloist, which the orchestra seemingly always on the backfoot. Topped off with lightning scalic passages and animated spiccato bowing that requires serious stamina, it’s easy to see why this violin concerto is considered one of the greatest and is so widely performed to this day.
1: Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 In G Minor
Bruch wrote a couple of gorgeous concertos: it was a toss-up between Violin Concerto No.1 In G Minor and the Scottish Fantasy for this top spot on the best violin concertos. However, his first Violin Concerto In G Minor just had the edge for us. This is another of the most popular concertos in the repertoire and features beautiful, rich, intense lyricism married with a display of formidable technical agility.
Mendelssohn / Bruch: Violin Concertos performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
Anne-Sophie Mutter said, “Karajan taught me to find the common thread that runs through a score, to think the music through to its logical conclusion not simply to juxtapose notes in long overarching paragraphs, but to place them in the service of the musical idea. This is something that has lodged in my memory with particular force.” In his liner notes Franzpeter Messmer observes, “Through patient rehearsals and a considerable capacity for understanding, Karajan was instrumental in coaxing from Anne-Sophie Mutter a performance that was not only technically perfect in a way that was demanded by the age of the gramophone but that also sounded entirely natural. It was to Karajan that she owed her early international reputation …”
Mendelssohn / Bruch: Violin Concertos, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, can be bought here.