It was not until late in life that Robert Schumann found the path to the violin. A pianist by profession, it almost seems as if his belated interest in the violin had a lasting effect on the performance and reception of his own works for that instrument. His Fantasy for violin and orchestra, op. 131, has never truly found a place in the repertoire; performances of his violin sonatas are relatively rare; and the Violin Concerto had to wait until 1937 for its première, when it was played in a bowdlerized version by Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Philharmonic under Karl Böhm. The latter work probably suffered as well from the unjustified verdict of the great Joseph Joachim, who called it 'weak' and spurned it to the end of his days.
As so often in music history, the vitality of a work can only be proved by committed performers. One such performer was Yehudi Menuhin, the first to forcibly elevate the Schumann concerto into the classical-romantic pantheon: 'This concerto is the historically missing link of the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos, though leaning more towards Brahms'.
Mendelssohn's E-minor Violin Concerto did not face the same problems of genesis and reception as Schumann's. On the contrary: it is one of the most frequently performed of all the great classical-romantic concertos, not least because it refuses to consign the orchestra to a bystander role, as in the virtuoso concerto. Instead, it follows Beethoven's example by achieving a balanced dramatic structure between the soloist and an orchestra with symphonic functions rather than an accompaniment role.
If we pay heed to Menuhin's shrewd assessment and their dates of origin, the combination of Mendelssohn's concerto with Schumann's seems much more convincing than the more popular combination of Mendelssohn's and the Bruch G-minor. This explains why the Munich violinist Carolin Widmann has now chosen the Mendelssohn and Schumann concertos for her new recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for ECM's New Series. Since 2008 her commitment to ECM has led to a number of remarkable CD releases, including a highly acclaimed recording of the Schumann violin sonatas with the pianist Dénes Várjon and a multiple prize-winning Schubert recording with Alexander Lonquich.
But a commitment to classical-romantic music is only one facet in the musical cosmos of this versatile artist, who numbers not only Schumann but Morton Feldman among her 'favourite composers'. She is equally au fait with period performance practice and avant-garde techniques and has presented convincing readings of highly-complex works by Berio and Boulez, Feldman's Violin and Orchestra (released on ECM) and Erkki-Sven Tüür, including his Noesie – Concerto for Clarinet, Violin and Orchestra with her brother Jörg Widmann on clarinet and the Nordic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anu Tali (likewise on ECM).
Boulez, incidentally, gave an interesting answer to the question of whether one should play the music of György Ligeti to gain a better grasp of the music of the past. Boulez said that one would at least gain a better performance culture. Anyone who masters Ligeti's sonic balance and Stockhausen's rhythms will, he felt, be better equipped to play the classical-romantic repertoire. Carolin Widmann's performances stand as proof of his theory. (ECM Records)