The concerto has to be the most popular form in classical music. Works like Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 constantly top ‘favourite piece’ polls, and those by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms aren’t far behind. It has become the central element of the standard concert format (overture, concerto, symphony), and concertos are played up and down the country night after night.
It’s no surprise. At their best, concertos are designed to draw us into an intriguing musical conversation between soloist and orchestra. Pitting a single musician against a whole ensemble creates a tension between flighty individual and stable collective that is fundamentally compelling. A soloist’s virtuosity can be truly thrilling to witness, and the flexible way in which a conductor and orchestra adapt to and enhance that brilliance can be just as wonderful.
This week there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to concertos. On June 14, one of my favourite violinists performs one of my favourite concertos alongside one of my favourite conductors at London’s Cadogan Hall. Finnish fiddler Pekka Kuusisto, whose irreverent performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto at last year’s Proms was hugely fun and memorable, will be playing his compatriot Sibelius’ Violin Concerto – a piece of filigree beauty and brooding tempestuousness – with the London Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Cadogan hosts another young violinist, Jan Mráček, playing another great concerto (Beethoven’s) on June 16 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins; they perform the piece together the previous day in Cheltenham’s Town Hall. Brabbins and the RPO have a packed concerto schedule this week, travelling to Cambridge on June 17 to play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in the Corn Exchange. The soloist for this joyous piece is 18-year-old Lucienne Renaudin Vary.
At their best, concertos are designed to draw us into an intriguing musical conversation between soloist and orchestra.
Another conductor keeping busy with concertos is Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. On June 14 they’re joined on home turf by pianist Steven Osborne for the Piano Concerto by Michael Tippett, a work he has recorded to critical acclaim. From thence to Suffolk for Aldeburgh Festival, joining with violist Antoine Tamestit on Saturday for Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto, a work Tamestit premièred in 2015.
There’s more concerto-ing going on across the country: Evgeni Bozhanov playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in Liverpool on June 15, and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich playing Vivaldi in London on June 17, for example. But I’ll end by giving a shout out to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who’ll be performing no fewer than four different concertos in a single concert on June 15. The soloists are top students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow: Hayley Tonner plays Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1; Shannon Merciel Elgar’s Cello Concerto; Irena Klimach Martinů’s Oboe Concerto; and Yicheng Pan Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The conductor is Holly Mathieson. She’s going to have her hands full.