Written by 1:46 pm New York News

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Violin

In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart and 21st-century composers.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the sweet, songful violin. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

This solo violin piece by Reena Esmail really blew me away when I first heard it. Like much of her work, it inhabits an intensely lyrical space informed by both Indian and Western classical musics. In Vijay Gupta’s gripping performance, I hear sounds, colors and expressions simultaneously familiar and fresh, intimate and epic, grounded and aloft.

Who was ever really happy with one scoop of ice cream rather than two? Bach’s Double Concerto is dessert doubled — especially in this recording, featuring a pair of the 20th century’s most honeyed tones. The violins’ interplay is playfully fiery in the work’s outer movements. But here, in the central Largo, the mood is shared, serene, blossoming longing.

With Eddie South’s performance of this piece, all you need is three minutes to fall in love with the violin. Any violinists who listen to this recording will surely identify at least one reason they chose to play the instrument, though it doesn’t take a seasoned listener to be completely delighted. The piece has a dazzling array of challenging techniques, Romantic lyricism and various fiddling styles, including jazz, Gypsy jazz and old time; the spontaneous nature of South’s performance brings me so much joy.

You look at the title of the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet, “Cavatina,” and think of an aria, simple and short. And the piece is both. But what makes its simplicity so special is not just the way the first violin arcs its line — how it traces out its song — but also how its partner, the second violin, seems to echo it, to join it on its path and embrace it, as if in sympathy. This is the most poignant, tender few minutes that Beethoven ever wrote for violins.

When composers are their own performers, as in the violin works of Paganini, Laurie Anderson and Leroy Jenkins, music becomes a self-portrait in motion. Secluded in his Brooklyn apartment since March with his instrument and effect pedals, Darian Thomas has been writing an intimate and vulnerable sonic diary about our times. In “Darkness Runs From Light,” he weaves — by himself — a lush string orchestra while breathily singing of angst and optimism: “I was up last night dreaming/About a new day/I was dreaming. Soaring. Hoping.” His violin hugs us, and we could all use a hug these days.

Biber’s transcendent solo-violin Passacaglia, from his Rosary Sonatas, precedes Bach’s monumental Chaconne by almost 50 years. Yet it already inhabits the same architectural grandeur, built by a single player and just four strings. The music unfolds like a dialogue between a solemn, dependable bass line and filigree variations full of fancy, yearning and quiet contemplation.

Jörg Widmanns’s book of 24 duos for violin and cello is basically a breathtaking 24-course meal at Noma featuring caribou sperm, spider eggs, fermented kangaroo sweat and popcorn. The one about the road home always gives me a most satisfying fright. It sounds as if a person with advanced memory loss forgets how a Brahms piece unfolds, but keeps trying before finally getting so profoundly sidetracked that it becomes a new language — and then vanishes. It tickles my fears both personal and global. A gesture both devastating and detached is a tricky thing to compose, but I think this two-minute cycle of sighs nails it.

I was an impatient violin student who often got in trouble for reading ahead and creating, as my teacher said, bad habits. (She was right.) When I should have been focusing on concertos by Bruch and Mendelssohn, I was more interested in works beyond my ability — like Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, with its lyrical warmth and lush textures. It’s alluring from the start: The soloist enters over frosty, barely audible violins, with a mysteriously inviting melody that gives way to what feels like a series of dark tales, shared late at night by the flickering glow of a dying fire.

“Mother and Child,” the second movement of William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, is filled with the tenderness you’d imagine from its title. It hearkens to the storytelling and lyricism of 1950s Hollywood scores, taking you on a dreamy journey. Even though he wrote the work in response to a sculpture by Sargent Johnson, it is known that Still had very close relationship with, and reverence for, his mother, who was a great supporter of his ambitions and a leader in their community. I hear in this soulful and robust performance by Rachel Barton Pine a musical tribute to motherly figures. This piece warms my heart.

Choosing “The Lark Ascending” to showcase the violin might seem saccharine or passé; it is commonly voted Britain’s favorite piece on polls each year. But when you strip away its associations with an imagined pastoral England, what you’re left with is an incredibly joyful flight of fancy. In good hands, the opening violin passages sound improvised, beginning in the instrument’s mellower range. Its full-throatedness, rich tones and upward ascent mimic a lark so wonderfully, and Vaughan Williams writes so that the violin blends seamlessly with solo winds while also performing virtuosic runs — a bird floating and diving.

This is one of the most heart-stopping pieces in the classical literature. I hold my breath every time I listen to it, or play it. It’s an incredibly special and personal experience. “The Lark Ascending” is all of art in one place: nature, music, poetry, imagery and imagination. It lifts you immediately out of your seat, out of the space you’re in, and carries you through the ether, through intense emotions, through joyful, sunny countryside revelry and through sheer orchestral lushness. The final note returns you to your own soul, yet still you are soaring.

The first movement of Samuel Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto has no introduction or suspenseful tease. It starts right off with a surging violin melody, touched with a bit of wistful nostalgia. When you have a tune that good, why wait? Things turns pensive and darker, but eventually the melody returns, in full orchestral splendor. This excerpt will make you want to hear the complete concerto, which ends with a virtuosic perpetual-motion finale.

Since it was invented 400 years ago, the violin has been cast in many different lights, from an angelic voice celebrating God’s glory to the devil’s instrument; it has an extremely wide range of colors and intention. While many of its famous works display some sort of virtuosic showmanship, I’ve recently found an ease and a comfort in the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Solo Violin. It’s a personal favorite that I had to include on my new album, “Solace.”

With recordings I’ve become something of an archaeologist — fascinated, and often deeply affected, by how the emotional content of a piece changes as performing traditions evolve. This passage from the Elgar Violin Concerto, recorded in 1932 by Yehudi Menuhin — just 16 at the time — reveals the violin as the most vocal of instruments. Menuhin’s is a way with the instrument that seems to have vanished. Give yourself a moment to get beyond the initial blushing connection with corny old Hollywood romances. Then hear how the elasticity of phrasing and the expressive slides between notes have the same power to touch you as a great jazz singer.

Bartok indulged some of his regular obsessions here, including folk-like melody and modernist patterns. He also thought carefully about the violin: In the first movement, the soloist and the orchestral strings engage in some deft handoffs. Before the exuberant cadenza, the violin plays some quarter-tones (starting at 49 seconds, in the clip below). Once the orchestra rejoins, you can find some capital-r Romantic yearning — yet another facet of this composer’s expressive vitality.

When I think of playing the violin, the first thing that comes to mind is love. Initially my love for my first violin teacher. I was captivated by her vibrato and longed to imitate the technique which produced such an amazing sound. I practiced and practiced until one day I succeeded in playing vibrato myself. I was the happiest boy on earth because I felt this was the sound that made the violin so beautiful. From that moment on I practiced day after day, year after year, always searching for romantic melodies which filled my heart with joy and which I discovered made other people happy, too. I still practice every day because this is what makes it possible for me to do the most beautiful job in the world: making people happy by playing my violin.

It is said that the violin comes closest to expressing the qualities of the human voice. I experience it as the most human and humane of all instruments. In “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” from the “St. Matthew Passion,” the violin entwines the voice as a full partner. The text is a plea for mercy, but the violin, too, speaks, its plaintive grace moving us to a place of empathy and forgiveness. I chose this, rather than the bravura of Paganini or the heights of the canon of concertos, as an expression of the purest yet most ravishing sound of the instrument. It carries a message of special resonance in these troubling times.

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