Lifelong Companion of the Philharmoniker

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35

Lisa Batiashvili
(Photo: Chris Singer)

On 11 March violinist Lisa Batiashvili will present Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto via live stream in the Digital Concert Hall with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, joining the ranks of the great violinists who have played this composition with the orchestra. An interesting history links the Berliner Philharmoniker to Tchaikovsky’s work, which became a lifelong companion of the orchestra, so to speak. A look back.

In the society section of the Berliner Tageblatt of 27 November 1882, the coloratura soprano Elena Varesi described the violinist Josef Kotek as her “rescuer”. Shortly before, Kotek had gallantly rushed to the aid of the celebrated diva after a carriage accident, and she had invited him to appear as soloist at a concert that she gave with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin on 27 November. The young Russian played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which had had its premiere a year earlier in Vienna, and thrilled the audience and critics alike with his brilliant interpretation.

Epitome of the Romantic violin concerto

Today Tchaikovsky’s work, with its melodically beguiling first movement, its intimate, songlike Andante and the rousing, energetic Finale, is regarded as the epitome of the Romantic violin concerto. In those days it was somewhat risky to present such a novelty, however. What did not appear in any society column or concert review was that Josef Kotek, a composition student and close friend of Tchaikovsky, had inspired the composer to write this concerto and also advised him on technical details. Tchaikovsky did not dedicate the work to him, though, but to the famous violin virtuoso Leopold Auer, who dismissed it as unplayable, however.

Tchaikovsky’s Concerto was not the only novelty in November 1882. The “Philharmonic Orchestra” had only been in existence for a few months, but – according to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik – it was already an “extremely important factor” in Berlin’s musical life. It would be six years before the Berliner Philharmoniker performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto a second time during these early years – with Carl Halir as soloist ‒ but it later became a centrepiece of the orchestra’s repertoire. Until the 1920s it could be found on one of the orchestra’s programmes nearly every year, probably because it was also a favourite work of the many violin soloists who appeared with the orchestra.

From Josef Kotek to Anne-Sophie Mutter

These interpreters included outstanding violinists such as Leopold Auer, who had initially refused to play the work but presented it with the Philharmoniker in a “brilliant artistic achievement” in 1895, during a memorial concert for Tchaikovsky after his death. It was also performed by Bronisław Huberman, who later founded the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the twelve-year-old Jascha Heifetz, who stepped in with the Concerto for the ill cellist Pablo Casals in 1912. The first female violinist to play the Concerto with the Philharmoniker was Irma Saenger-Sèthe, a student of Eugène Ysaÿe, during a concert in 1901. Philharmonic concertmasters also gave brilliant performances of the work: Siegfried Borries, Gerhard Taschner, Michel Schwalbé and Leon Spierer. Tibor Varga, Igor Oistrakh, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer, Shlomo Mintz, Maxim Vengerov, Midori, Viktoria Mullova, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Janine Jansen have all performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as guest soloists with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Incidentally, the Concerto’s composer also stood at the rostrum of the orchestra. Tchaikovsky conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in a programme of his own works in 1888 and 1889, although the Violin Concerto was not among them. His friend Josef Kotek did not live to hear these performances, however. He died of tuberculosis in 1885, at the age of only 29, three years after his appearance at the Varesi concert.


Josef Kotek and Pyotr Tchaikovsky
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)