While violinist Joseph Joachim had a hand in fine-tuning Max Bruch's first violin concerto, Pablo Sarasate was the direct inspiration for Bruch's second concerto. This is unfortunate, for Bruch provided the Spanish soloist a virtuoso vehicle lacking the balance and direct expression that made his first concerto so popular.
This concerto begins with a long Adagio non troppo, which Johannes Brahms found altogether troppo: "Normal people cannot endure it," he wrote. The movement is in sonata form, the violin singing out a first theme tailored specifically to what Bruch called Sarasate's "soulful" style. This is the concerto's strongest movement, with highly expressive writing for the soloist over unobtrusive, but effective, ominous support from the orchestra. Despite a few high-tension passages replete with double stops, this movement does not require fireworks from the soloist.
The brief second movement, described as a recitative, picks up the pace somewhat with a sequence of declamatory passages for the violin, cheered on by orchestral outbursts, that link the outer movements thematically. The movement also functions somewhat as a big, accompanied cadenza.
The finale, an Allegro molto in loose sonata form, brings on the pyrotechnics. The soloist uses the rather Lalo-like themes as little more than an excuse for virtuosic display, with the orchestra almost fully subservient to the violin's survey of bowing effects and showy double-stop writing. The music does ease off from time to time, but these more relaxed episodes still require ardent playing from the soloist, and the rip-roaring final measures are clearly designed to bring an audience to its feet.