By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Musicologist and writer Donald Tovey once said of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, that its “most famous strokes of genius are not only mysteriously quiet, but mysterious in radiantly happy surroundings.” This certainly seems reflected in María Dueñas’ radiant playing of the piece in her new two-CD set, Beethoven and Beyond (Deutsche Grammophon). She teases out trills to impossible lengths and slows down glacially halfway through the first movement leading into the great striding triplets. She takes risk after risk, leaving space for Beethoven’s musical shafts of light, and, with the orchestra and conductor with her every step of the way, succeeds triumphantly.
The album (available on CD and vinyl) adds short works by Kreisler, Saint-Saëns, Spohr (a gorgeous G major Adagio with harp), Wieniawski, and Ysaÿe, with a companion disc of cadenzas to the first movement of the Beethoven by the same composers. She plays her own cadenzas on the recording, a gloriously long affair in the first movement and, at times, deliriously beautiful in the third.
Born in Granada, Spain, 20-year-old Dueñas has been studying with Boris Kuschnir at the Music and Arts University of Vienna since 2016. She won first prize and the audience prize at the 2021 Menuhin Competition in Richmond and was victorious at the Viktor Tretyakov International Violin Competition in Krasnoyarsk and the 2018 Vladimir Spivakov International Violin Competition in Ufa. She currently plays on the 1710 “Camposelice” Stradivari violin, courtesy of the Nippon Music Foundation.
In a video interview, Dueñas tells me that the Beethoven Violin Concerto has played an important role at key stages throughout her career. It was, in fact, the last concerto she played before the pandemic and the first concerto she played after. “That was in my hometown of Granada,” she says, “and it was a very special concert for me.”
“The concerto is very near to my heart, for sure. The pieces that you learn when you are very young,” she muses, “are the ones that stay in your fingers and in your mind forever. I started learning the concerto just for fun. I didn’t start working seriously on it until I was living in Germany. When I played it for [chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic] Marek Janowski and asked when I could play it with his orchestra, he told me, ‘When you’re 18.’ I was 11 at that time. So that became a goal, to play Beethoven at a high enough level to perform it with him.”
Knowing the Beethoven Concerto deeply also came in handy during a meeting earlier this year in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna with another celebrated conductor: 95-year-old Herbert Blomstedt. Dueñas describes this as “another situation where Beethoven helped me. I played the concerto without accompaniment, not even a piano, because our meeting was unexpected and happened at the last minute. I just went onstage in the empty hall and played Beethoven for him.” When I ask whether the maestro had conducted, she smiles and says, “No, he just listened. Too bad we didn’t have an orchestra. Afterward, I think he was very happy, very impressed. He invited me right away to the concert in Dresden.” At press time, Dueñas is scheduled to play the Mendelssohn Concerto with Blomstedt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Dresden Music Festival in May.
In forging her career, Dueñas has set out to emulate the masters who influenced her the most in her childhood: Oistrakh and Heifetz. She tells me that she was most fascinated by “the fact that they have a very personal sound, which I can recognize when I listen to their recordings. It was very clear to me from the beginning that that was what I wanted to achieve as well: a unique personal sound that audiences will be able to recognize.”
She says that working with conductors like Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who are violinists themselves, “makes a huge difference in most cases, because they can really understand what you’re doing, and they can follow you. Maestro Honeck was one of the first conductors who believed in me when I was very young—he invited me to Pittsburgh and supported me a lot. He’s not just a great conductor but also a good person, which I think makes for a special combination. He’s open to new ideas, and it’s been interesting developing common ideas about the music we play each time I work with him.”
Her Beethoven and Beyond suggests a special interest in cadenzas, and Dueñas reveals a passion for history and musical integrity. “When the composer gives you the opportunity to write your own cadenzas for their great concertos, then you should take it. The first time I played the Beethoven Concerto, I wrote my own cadenzas. I have written cadenzas for all the concertos that provide the opportunity. I began with the Mozart concertos, then Beethoven, then Brahms.”
As to the five alternate cadenzas to the first movement, Dueñas explains that she recorded these specific cadenzas “to really hear how responses and styles changed over time. They are always inspired by Beethoven, of course, but each composer’s unique voice also comes through.” The Spohr is short, less than 90 seconds, closer perhaps to what Beethoven had in mind. The others are four minutes and change; Dueñas’ is closer to five.
Intriguingly, these additional cadenzas only scratch the surface of the many that have been composed. Ruggiero Ricci’s 1995 Biddulph recording offers 14, including those by Ferdinand David, Vieuxtemps, Ferdinand Laub, Auer, Busoni, and Milstein.
Dueñas’s interest in obscure cadenzas comes from her belief that young musicians have “a responsibility to make lesser-known repertoire well known. For example, these cadenzas, which are never played, provide really interesting insights into how composers through the years after Beethoven understood the concerto.”
She is equally enthusiastic about the shorter pieces on the album. “Some are often played, like Kreisler’s Liebesleid or Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise, but the Berceuse, Op. 20, by Ysaÿe is rarely played, and it’s a very beautiful piece for violin, which should be played more.”
Although she can’t say much about her next recording, she says there are “nice things planned—and some surprises. It’s very important to me to show as many different sides and faces of the violin as possible.”
In addition to concerts in Dresden and Vienna and Granada, Dueñas has been making a big splash in Los Angeles. In October 2022, she recorded Gabriela Ortiz’s Altar de cuerda, the seventh in the composer’s series of intense symphonic reflections, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The recording is scheduled for release in 2024, when she will play the Ortiz at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last summer at the Hollywood Bowl, Dueñas played Beethoven’s Triple Concerto alongside Sergio Tiempo and Robert deMaine with Dudamel conducting.
“It was amazing. It was my first time playing on such a big stage. The energy from the public and from Dudamel was really inspiring. I felt like the moon was watching me from above. It was magical for sure.” The stars were probably watching her as well.
Outstanding Recent Recordings of the Beethoven Concerto
- Fanny Clamagirand, violin; English Chamber Orchestra, Ken-David Masur, cond. (Mirare)
- Veronika Eberle, violin; London Symphony, Simon Rattle, cond. (cadenzas by Jörg Widmann) (LSO Live)
- Vilde Frang, violin; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Pekka Kuusisto, cond. (Warner)
- Daniel Gaede, violin; Polish Chamber Philharmonic, Wojciech Rajski, cond. (Tacet)
- Vadim Gluzman, violin; Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, James Gaffigan, cond. (Schnittke cadenza written for Gidon Kremer) (BIS)
- Henning Kraggerud, violin; Arctic Philharmonic, Christian Kluxen, cond. (Simax)
- Daniel Lozakovich, violin; Munich Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, cond. (Deutsche Grammophon)Teiko Maehashi, violin; Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, cond. (Sony)
- Midori, violin; Festival Strings Lucerne, Daniel Dodds, cond. (Warner)
- Lena Neudauer, violin; Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch, cond. (CPO)
- Liya Petrova, violin; Sinfonia Varsovia, co Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond. (Mirare)
- Gil Shaham, violin; the Knights, Eric Jaconsen, cond. (Canary)
- Dmitry Sinkovsky, violin; Musica Viva, Alexander Rudin, cond. (Glossa)
- Yvonne Smeulers, violin; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Peter Kuhn, cond. (Genuin)