By Laurie Niles | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Leopold Auer might have hit on some truth when he declared that the violin concerto written for him by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was “unplayable,” canceling its premiere performance in frustration over the work. Of course, two years later, in 1881, violinist Adolph Brodsky proved him wrong by performing the concerto, and not long after that Auer himself performed it, with some minor revisions. In fact, Auer championed the work for the rest of his life, teaching it to his students as well. It has since become one of the best-loved concertos in the violin repertoire.
But Auer’s initial pronouncement continues to resonate today, repeated by teachers, violinists, critics, and writers. Why? Because Auer gave voice to common frustration about this work: it’s demanding and difficult.
One could write an entire book about the concerto’s technical challenges: shifting, vibrato, runs, string crossings, sul G playing, tricky passagework, double-stops, voicing, very-high-E-string playing, chords, octaves, spiccato, harmonics—to name a few. But here I will focus on just four measures: mm. 98–101, a passage that serves as a transition between the lush and melodic music before it and the thorny technical passage that follows. While the runs in these measures seem pretty straightforward, they have some hidden complexities. Achieving both clarity of rhythm and precision in the fingers requires extra attention. Here are a few strategies.
Find the Beat
Faced with the inconvenient-looking patterns in these runs, the first temptation may be to throw counting out the window. But to simply play these runs “really fast” and hope for the best is to miss out on the interesting rhythmic underpinnings of this passage. To find the rhythmic backbone of this segment, first look at the big picture, rather than the smaller details. What is the foundation beneath these asymmetric runs that are grouped in 11, five, and seven? It can be broken down to this larger pattern (Figure 1, below).
For the entire passage, it’s important to be able to switch from dividing the beat into two and dividing it into three. The first two measures are duple-duple-triple-triple. The second two measures are duple-triple-duple-triple. As a first step, try just clapping or thinking the rhythms in Figure 1. This is the rhythmic backbone on which all these notes will rest.
How exactly do all these notes fit onto that backdrop? Figure 2 illustrates how the general pattern aligns with the notes that Tchaikovsky has written, showing the pattern from Figure 1 on top. On the bottom is the rhythm that comes from the orchestra. The orchestra is silent for much of the time here, but Tchaikovsky writes the few orchestral entrances with specificity. It’s important for the soloist to be aware of exactly how the orchestra part aligns with the solo part, especially in the second two measures.
For both measures 98 and 99 (duple-duple-triplet-triplet): The first beat begins with an eighth note, followed by four 32nd notes (which fit in the span of an eighth-note’s time). In the second beat we find an 11-note run that fits into one beat. I recommend dividing it in two, 5 notes + 6 notes. These runs are meant to accelerate, so adding it onto the four notes from the latter half of the first beat creates a natural acceleration of 4+5+6. On the third beat is a triplet in the solo part; on the fourth beat is a rest for the soloist, but a triplet in the orchestra (or piano) part. When you play this alone in a practice room, it is important to imagine the orchestra’s triplet during this rest on the fourth beat, to give you a solid concept of the internal rhythm of the passage.
For both measures 100 and 101 (duple-triplet-duple-triplet): In the first beat, we have a nested quadruplet followed by a nested septuplet, or put more simply, 5 + 7. Why didn’t Tchaikovsky simply give us 6 + 6? It would have been so much easier to count! (Or he even could have given us 4 + 4 + 4, matching up with the triplets.) But there is a reason: The orchestra comes on the “and” of beats 1 and 3, matching up every time with the C# and then C in the soloist’s run. It also creates a written-in acceleration. Note that with the orchestra coming in on the “and” of the first beat, as well as the notation in the soloist’s part, Tchaikovsky has adamantly written the first beat as a duple pattern. On the second beat is a triplet. Third beat: duple with 5 + 7 notes for the soloist, with the orchestra coming in on the “and” of three. Fourth beat: triplet.
Organize the Left Hand
Getting the fingers to fall in place at the right time and with precision is a separate problem from counting, though eventually the two must be brought together. But to get the fingers in line, it’s all right to pull everything apart in the practice room. Here are some strategies that you can apply to any run in any piece.
Start with a good fingering that fits your hand, so that you can play the passage in tune. This will depend on the size and shape of your hand, length of your fingers, your preferences for shifting vs. sliding, etc. Ease of playing in tune is key! Here is the fingering (Figure 3, below) that I have found to be easiest; again, you may find another fingering easier for you.
Once you have settled on a fingering, play it slowly and perfectly in tune. This sounds obvious, but it’s a step people sometimes skip. As you improve, start playing it slowly with the correct rhythms, keeping everything in proportion. Under this scenario, the triplets will seem extremely slow and the rest at the end of the first two measures will seem extremely long—so be it. In other words, don’t play the easy stuff fast and the hard stuff slow! The more you can keep your rhythms proportional now, the better success you’ll have later.
Get the Runs Up to Speed
For agility of fingers, play the runs in rhythms. For these, don’t worry about the rhythmic groupings described above; this is more about getting your fingers to go in the right places. Here are several rhythms to practice (Figure 4, below), and you can make up your own, as well.
For faster fingers and precision with shifts, break down each run the following way: Stop the bow completely at every shift and at every string crossing. After either rocking the bow or shifting, resume the bow direction as you drum the fingers onto the fingerboard as fast as possible, similar to drumming your fingers on a tabletop. Importantly, you must drum the exact fingers needed, precisely in the appropriate finger pattern and perfectly in tune. That means that you must know exactly where every half-step and whole step lies on each string and in each position, for each particular run. Here is just one of the runs, as an example (Figure 5, below).
In Figure 5, start down-bow on the G string and drum 2-3, a whole step apart. Stop bow, string crossing to D. Resume down-bow and drum 0-1-2-3, all whole steps. Stop, string crossing to A. Resume down-bow and drum 0-1-2, all whole steps. Stop, shift to third position. Resume down-bow and drum 1-2-3-4, all whole steps. Stop, cross to E. Resume down-bow and drum 1-2-3, all whole steps. (If you prefer to play this run with an up-bow, you can do the same exact exercise, simply starting up-bow and continuing with that bow direction.)
Obsessive work, but if you want crystal-clear shifts, string-crossings, and finger placement, this exercise is golden.
As you start feeling the rhythmic undercurrent and start getting the fingers in place, don’t forget to incorporate the musical requests Tchaikovsky made: a crescendo through this entire passage, accents on the triplets, and a bit of a slowing down on the final triplets as the music moves into the next part of the piece.