Robert Schumann’s only violin concerto is a problem child of the classical repertoire in several respects. That applies first of all to the content of the work itself. The expression of grief is unmistakable, in the slow movement, for example, whose theme Schumann would take up again in his very last composition, the Ghost Variations for piano. It is equally true of its performance and reception history, however. The dedicatee Joseph Joachim and Schumann’s wife Clara had doubts about the playability and quality of the work. Joachim’s son insisted that the concerto not be premiered until 100 years after the composer’s death. Shortly before this deadline elapsed, the work was premiered in 1937 – but in a dubious arrangement. In addition, it was misused for propaganda purposes by the National Socialists, who wanted to establish it as a “German” replacement for the violin concerto by the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, which was banned from concert programmes.
Since then, many distinguished soloists have championed the unmistakable beauty of the unconventional work. Violinist Isabelle Faust, who played the concerto at her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, has contributed to the renaissance of the work as well. As part of its Schumann focus during the 2008/2009 season, the orchestra also presented the Second Symphony, which is one of the composer’s most demanding and successful works in this genre, with thematic quotations recurring throughout the movements, the use of Baroque compositional techniques and one of the most beautiful slow movements of the Romantic repertoire. The programme also featured Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s orchestral work Photoptosis, which is characterized by a complex rhythmic structure and numerous quotations from music history. At the podium was the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, who was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1998, as the immediate successor to Sir Simon Rattle.