If you’re looking for objectivity, you won’t find it here. I’m a psychologist by profession and an amateur violinist. So the following list and the explanations are purely subjective, not the opinion of a professional musician or musical scholar, and will probably change by the time I finish writing this. Nevertheless, as of today, here are the top 10 violin concertos of all time (in rank order), and why I think so.
Number 1 – Ludwig van Beethoven, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Opus 61, written in 1806.“The Gentle Giant.” A serene piece of music made of the simplest materials but of immense scope and structure. One of the greatest cultural achievements of Western civilization. Listen particularly for the 5-beat element present almost everywhere in the 1st Movement.
Number 2 – Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 35, written in 1878.“A true blockbuster.” This is the most popular violin concerto ever written, and with good reason. Written in a burst of happy inspiration, it has been on the best-seller list of audience favorites for over 125 years, and shows no signs of disappearing.
Number 3 – Johannes Brahms, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 77, written in 1878.“Depth and romanticism.” The ideal combination of classical form and romanticism from the unique voice of classical music’s most introspective poet. He had to have been in love when he wrote this one.
Number 4 – Niccolo Paganini, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in B minor, Opus 7, written in 1826.“Dramatic, theatrical, virtuosic, and seductive.” Italian opera with the violin solo as a kind of super-soprano voice. You can almost see the curtains opening at the opening orchestral introduction. The ultimate combining an operatic aesthetic with spectacular instrumental virtuosity by perhaps one of the greatest virtuosos and underrated composers of all time.
Number 5 – Jean Sibelius, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Opus 47, written in 1903.“Emotional, majestic, and exciting.” This has been an audience favorite ever since it was popularized by the great Jascha Heifetz. The rugged nature of the two outer movements is in complete contrast to the exquisite beauty of the slow movement, which has a long melody played only twice.
Number 6 – Felix Mendellsohn, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, Opus 64, written in 1844.“Seamless elegance and heart.” The model of what a violin concerto should be. Pure song from beginning to end. It actually sounds as if it was never actually “composed,” but always existed in the atmosphere somewhere, only to be plucked out of the sky by Mendellsohn and written down for others to play.
Number 7 – Bela Bartok, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra #2, written in 1939.“Animalistic fury from the heart of the Eastern European backwoods.” This concerto is simultaneously in classical sonata form, a theme and variations, and with all of the inspiration of an improvised fantasy. Its nature is deep and stark, just as the turmoil of the world the composer lived in.
Number 8 – Dmitri Shostakovich, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, #1, Opus 99, written in the 1950’s.“The darkness of the 20th Century.” Unusual in being in 4 movements, whereas most concertos are in 3. Introspective and vibrant. The 3rd Movement, “Passacaglia,” is a theme and variations of almost agonizing intensity.
Number 9 – Edward Elgar, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B Minor, Opus 61, written in 1910.“Victorian pomp and emotional sensitivity all rolled into one.” This is one of those “old-fashioned” concertos that keeps popping up as timeless. The depth of emotion, genuine sentimentality, regal dignity, and consummate virtuosity inherent is this music is all perfectly combined and direct from the composer’s heart.
Number 10 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Violin Concerto #4 in D Major, K. 218, written in 1775.“Purity, song, and perfection.” How can you have a top-10 list and not include Mozart? In fact, how can Mozart possibly have sunk to 10th place? The 3rd and 5th Concertos may be more popular, but to me this one has such sheer beauty, liveliness, and heart, that it never fails to move me.