Busoni's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35a is the composer's first real masterpiece, written while his international touring career as the greatest piano virtuoso of his day was at its height. The Violin Concerto explores the same Romantic territory covered at greater length by Busoni's gargantuan Piano Concerto of 1904, but without the intellectual and aesthetic problems posed by the later work's literary allusions and concluding male chorus; and, at about twenty-five minutes (versus the Piano Concerto's seventy minute length), the Violin Concerto is a much more manageable enterprise for the listener.
The noble theme of the first movement (Allegro moderato) is announced immediately in the woodwinds and answered by the violin, which embarks on a long Apollonian rhapsody on this sweetly harmonized ascending melody. The writing for the violin is virtuosic throughout, calling for long legato passages in double-stops alternating with fast sections of tricky finger work. There is the suggestion of parody from time to time, as when, in the development, hieratic, fanfare-like chords from the brass are answered by the soloist with a jaunty humoresque tune. A big tutti toward the end of the movement reminds the listener of the dominance of Richard Strauss on the musical landscape of the era, but Busoni seems to give us a sidelong glance and a knowing wink with the orchestra's over-pompous gestures.
The second movement (Quasi andante) follows attacca. It's a passionate cantilena for the soloist with discreet accompaniment from the orchestra. Here the parodistic element is abandoned for a fine example of Busoni's knack for spinning a long-breathed and complex melody, which would achieve its fullest expression in his operas. In the middle section, plaintive minor key chords from the woodwinds are embroidered by the soloist, before a recollection of the noble main theme of the first movement takes us without pause into the finale.
This Allegro impetuoso lives up to its name, with a quick, leaping theme struck up right away by the violin. Although not strictly a rondo, the finale leads us through a rapid succession of episodes in which humor and high spirits predominate. Of particular note is a passage for orchestra alone, in which a pompous theme is carried in the low strings to great ironic effect, pointing to Busoni's predilection for Commedia dell'Arte-style mask and ritual. The end is brilliant and exciting.
Throughout Busoni's Violin Concerto, it's evident that although the highest degree of virtuosity is required of the soloist, the real virtuoso at work is Busoni himself, who here wrote a thoroughly accomplished and preternaturally modern masterwork that still has the power to surprise latter-day audiences.