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Inside the Music

A “Dangerous” Feat: Reviving Sibelius’ Hidden Concerto

As violinist Elina Vähälä and the Minnesota Orchestra prepare for a rare feat—offering back-to-back performances of two different versions of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in the January Sibelius Festival—writer Matthew Philion relates how this remarkable concerto came to be and how Osmo Vänskä played a singular role in reviving the original version for modern audiences. 

Jean Sibelius once imagined a career as a violin soloist, not a composer. But he began playing the instrument only at age 14—too old to start developing virtuoso skills.  

He eventually realized his true talent was composition; by the beginning of the 20th century, not yet 40 years old, he’d already written beloved works like the Karelia Suite, Finlandia and the Second Symphony. And he was now ready to compose, for his instrument, his first (and only) concerto —the Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47. 

Sibelius began work on the concerto in 1903, intending to offer the premiere to Wilhelm Burmester—a violin virtuoso who’d been concertmaster of the Helsinki Philharmonic. But likely due to the cash-strapped composer’s need for immediate funds, Sibelius couldn’t wait for Burmester’s suggested premiere date in March 1904. Instead, Victor Nováček was the soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the first performance of the work on February 8, 1904 (with the composer conducting). Two more concerts followed on February 10 and 12.  

Nováček, a violin professor in Helsinki, was either not prepared or skilled enough to fully realize this complex, virtuosic new work. Reviews of the concerto were mixed. One critic even found it “boring.” Dismayed, Sibelius then withdrew the score, and this “original” version was never performed again in his lifetime.

The Last Great Romantic-Era Violin Concerto

But the composer was determined to revise the concerto: in 1905 he made extensive changes to the work, especially the first and third movements. Violinist Karel Halíř performed the revised score on October 19, 1905, with Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Orchestra. 

In the revision, Sibelius shortened the work slightly, and integrated the violin more effectively with the orchestra—for example, highly virtuosic passages in the original first movement, including an entire second cadenza, gave way to a more subdued, less technical approach (while still maintaining moments of incredible virtuosity and melodic beauty). Today, the revised version is considered the last great Romantic-era violin concerto.   

But the original version—full of Sibelian charm and technical bravado—would have a second life. In September 1990, 86 years after the score was last heard, the Sibelius family allowed violinist Manfred Gräsbeck, conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony to perform the original concerto; in January 1991, soloist Leonidas Kavakos recorded the original version for BIS Records with Vänskä and the Lahti ; additional performances—though infrequent—have followed. 

“Mixing the Two is Dangerous”

Finnish violin virtuoso Elina Vähälä is one of the talented few who’ve performed the challenging 1904 concerto. In a kind of super-human musical and physical feat, this January she’ll perform both the original and revised versions, over consecutive weeks, as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival which opened on New Year’s Eve. 

She’s an expert with the revised 1905 version—a standard work for virtuosos. “What I haven’t done before” she notes, “is play the two concertos almost back-to-back. My strategy is to ignore the final version for now and get back at it only after the first week of the Sibelius Festival. I trust that the final version is simply ‘there,’ I’ve played it so many times.” 

According to Vähälä, a real challenge is not to confuse the versions—“Mixing the two,” she notes, “is dangerous.”

She believes the original version’s overall mood is darker, “although there is something more Viennese in the concerto’s second theme. It’s lighter and charming. There is a constant nostalgia in the first version, as if it’s looking back.

“The most challenging section,” she laughs, “is probably in the second-movement middle part: crazy chromatic noodling!”

Elina Vähälä will perform the original version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto on January 7 and 8, with Music Director Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. She’ll perform the revised version on January 13 and 14. The Sibelius Festival runs through January 16. 

Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, and amateur trombone and euphonium player.