Sibelius & Novacek

How could Sibelius’s Concerto, now so popular, have had such a crazy start in life? It was partly the composer’s fault. Jean Sibelius was already contemplating a concerto for the violin, his own instrument, when he went to Berlin in November 1902 to conduct his revised En Saga. He apparently met German violinist Willy Burmester, who had Finnish connections – he was married to pianist Naëma Fazer, sister of the music publisher Konrad Fazer, and had led the Helsinki orchestra. Burmester followed the concerto’s composition closely and offered to perform it in Berlin in March 1904; but Sibelius, short of money, decided to hold the premiere earlier, in Helsinki.

The violinist at the unsuccessful premiere in an all-Sibelius programme on February 8, 1904 was the Czech Viktor Novácek, professor at the Music Academy and not a notable soloist. Burmester again offered to play the concerto but Sibelius decided to revise it, shortening the outer movements, then dilly-dallied until it was too late to book the German. Another Czech, the great Karel Halír, played the revision with the Berlin Philharmonic under Richard Strauss on October 19, 1905 (adding the Beethoven and premiering two movements of Loeffler’s Divertissement at the same concert) and it went down well, but Burmester never played it – in any case, he was best known for playing short pieces.

Unhappy with the work’s slow progress, Sibelius asked the young Hungarian virtuoso Franz von Vecsey to take it up. He first played it in 1909 to great acclaim and was rewarded with the re-dedication. An attempt to record it in 1934, with Jascha Heifetz and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski, did not work but Heifetz succeeded the following year with Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tully Potter

  • Jean Sibelius, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Sibelius, Lebrecht Music & Arts
  • Karel Halír, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Anja Ignatius, The Tully Potter Collection