Old Strings, Good Strings
Outstanding Recent Historical Reissues
Outstanding Recent Historical Reissues
Despite the woeful cries of the Gloomy Guses who pestiferate in the musical press, the classical CD is by no means dead, nor has it been "killed" by historic reissues. Vast areas of our precious musical past have yet to be uncovered, and a fascinating crop of recent reissues reminds us of a major benefit of listening to old records: we are confronted with past personalities and approaches, far from what is common coin in conservatories and concert halls today. The mysteries of past excellences need to be studied by all who have passed the stage of child prodigy, working on instinct alone.
Some artists are especially alert to the vital importance of the past. Veteran violinist Ida Haendel has just released a new CD recital, accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy, which shows her in feisty form at age 76; yet she also had the courage to append as a bonus CD some of her Decca recordings from the 1940s, when she was in her late teens (Decca 455-488-2). Brisk, utterly self-confident, high on temperament and panache, the spiffy speed of her performances are all the more notable given her rather retiring group of accompanists, including Adela Kotowska, Ivor Newton, and her sister Alice Haendel. Of these, only Noel Mewton-Wood, an Australian who killed himself at age 31, matches Haendel in her impish drive, in a fleet Beethoven Sonata in G, Op. 30, No. 3. Perhaps best of all is a sexy rendition of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, capturing the mystery and grace of that hypnotic work.
Another woman fiddler well worth investigating is the Vienna-born Erica Morini (1904–95), still remembered for achingly lyrical recordings like the Glazounov Concerto conducted by Ferenc Fricsay. On the first CD of what looks to be a lengthy series ( Erica Morini, Vol. 1, Doremi DHR 7762), Doremi offers a particularly touching Mozart Sonata K. 454 from around 1931, accompanied by Louis Kentner (1905–87). This ardent interpretation offers an unusual emotional complicity from these two artists, who were still in their 20s when it was made. Morini had perfect security, fire, and refinement in her playing. In spite of what sounds like heavy-handed transfers of some of the other works here, this is a treasurable CD, also including the Wienawski Concerto No. 2, accompanied by the NBC Symphony conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
The Naxos Historical series, in the capable hands of transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thorn (and David Lennick) has arrived at two essential new volumes, of Fritz Kreisler’s justly renowned Beethoven and Mendelssohn Concertos conducted by Leo Blech ( Fritz Kreisler: Complete Concerto Recordings, Vol. 1, Naxos Historical 8.110909), and Bronislaw Huberman’s Beethoven Concerto conducted by George Szell and Tchaikovsky Concerto led by William Steinberg—back in in his Berlin days, when he was known as Wilhelm (Naxos Historical 8.110903). Although the previous Biddulph reissues of the Kreisler performances were superb, these new transfers are also worthy, seeming to underline the excellence of Blech’s contribution to Kreisler’s great art. This mighty fiddler created cathedrals of sound effortlessly, as in the Beethoven first-movement cadenza, but Blech on the podium made these 1926 performances more intensely emotional than their remakes a few years later, with John Barbirolli conducting. As for Huberman, the wild man of his instrument, his pulling around of the score may be shocking in the Beethoven (especially if one has just heard Kreisler’s Apollonian reading), but he certainly tears down the house in the Tchaikovsky. No violinist today, whatever his testosterone level, would want to play in this scenery-chewing way, but for sheer visceral oomph, Huberman is hard to beat.
From Dionysos back to Apollo again, BMG recently produced fitting tributes to Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh. Heifetz’ dominance of all the challenges of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos is cushioned by the warmth of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner in the 1950s, and the sound quality is excellent ( Jascha Heifetz the Supreme, BMG 74321-63470-2). Some may prefer Heifetz’ concerto recordings from the 1930s for their combination of archangel power and moving vibrato. Indeed, a 1961 version here of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy seems like an abstract painting of a battle scene; in the final movement, marked "Allegro Guerriero," the composer must have expected the soloist to fight bravely and audibly against the orchestra, whereas Heifetz sweeps through, magically unimpeded by anything like a technical challenge. Such a musician really is supreme and justifies any hype. By contrast, the Oistrakh release from BMG ( David Oistrakh the Essential, BMG 74321 729142) offers one CD of first releases of Mozart and Brahms concertos, played with a thick and heavy approach by both Oistrakh and conductor Kirill Kondrashin. Far better are the two Shostakovich concertos on the second CD, especially the first concerto, as performed in 1956 with Yevgeny Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic. A Russian-born violinist who perfectly commanded the classical idiom of Mozart is Nathan Milstein; in its distinguished series of reissues of his 1950s recordings, EMI recently reprinted sovereign readings of sonatas by Handel and Mozart, with the always gratifying accompaniment of pianist Artur Balsam in the Handel (EMI 7243-5-67316-22).
Sometimes musical legends leave behind tantalizing traces, like the live recordings of Brahms performances from the 1947 Edinburgh Festival by Joseph Szigeti, Pierre Fournier, and Artur Schnabel (Arbiter 121). Released now by Arbiter for the first time ever, these recordings were not done professionally and hence are very flawed in sound quality, sometimes painfully so. Yet there permeates a real sense of occasion here, especially in the spacious adagios of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 and the Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 78. Szigeti’s vigor blends well with Fournier’s elegance, and Schnabel is captured in an unusually genial and expansive mood. This release also boasts a charming and valuable essay by pianist Leon Fleischer about Schnabel, his teacher.
Even artists who have left vast quantities of recordings, such as Yehudi Menuhin, can surprise us when archives are scoured for material. Biddulph recently released performances recorded by Menuhin during an East Asian tour in 1951 ( Menuhin: The Japanese Victor Recordings, Biddulph LAB 162/63). The playing, particularly of solo works including Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor and his Partita No. 3 in E, is a splendid combination of the young Menuhin’s seductive lyricism and the older player’s sense of dance rhythms. Fortunately free of Menuhin’s later technical glitches, these solo recordings are among the late musician’s best.
Equal superlatives are due some newly issued French radio recordings from the 1950s by cellist Maurice Gendron of two Beethoven sonatas and a Brahms sonata accompanied by the pianist-composer Jean Francaix (INA Memoire Vive IMV031). Gendron never recorded these works commercially—probably because of the similar prejudices of recording executives who refused to believe that conductor Pierre Monteux could master anything but French repertoire. In the event, Gendron is suave and urbane in these works, a sensuous delight, and Francaix, still under a cloud at the time for his alleged collaborationist activities during the wartime German occupation of Paris, is clearly a thinking musician. From the same French INA series comes a welcome recital by the viola-and-piano duo of Lory and Ernst Wallfisch, mostly recorded in 1979 (IMV029). With rarities like a Koechlin Sonata, Op. 53, and Milhaud’s Sonata No. 2, written for the couple, they are most persuasive advocates. Even if Ernst Wallfisch’s tone is slightly acerbic, Lory’s pliant and rhythmically sensitive accompaniment helps create a fine artistic effect. Showing their range and versatility as performers, the couple also play the Mondonville Sonate Concerto No. 6, with Ernst playing violin and Lory a rather 1950s-sounding harpsichord.
Also ineffably French is a Telefunken Legacy reissue from Teldec of the Calvet Quartet from the 1930s playing the Beethoven Quartets Op. 18, No. 1, and Op. 131 ( Calvet Quartet Plays Beethoven Quartets, Teldec Telefunken Legacy 3984-28413-2). In surprisingly clear and direct sound, the group makes Beethoven as dry as a biscuit or a flute of champagne. The Calvet included superb virtuosos, like Daniel Guilevitch, who as Daniel Guilet played for Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and later helped found the Beaux Arts Trio. For a sinuously French view of "Louis de Beethoven," this recording captures a historical moment with rare vividness and real musicality. The helpful CD booklet notes about the Calvets are by a British academic, Donald Ellman.
Another, more recent recording that has dated less well is Mstislav Rostropovich’s version of the two Haydn cello concertos, now reissued in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series (EMI 7243-56726321). Rostro’s playing sounded showy and out of key with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields even when it was first published in 1975. Now it appears frankly inferior to his earlier version of the C-Major Haydn Concerto with Benjamin Britten leading the English Chamber Orchestra. Britten was a far more interesting conductor in this repertoire than Rostro himself, who takes on the chores in the later performance. Another EMI reissue, more worthy of the category of great recordings, is John Barbirolli leading the Sinfonia of London in English works for strings including Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro (with the Allegri String Quartet) and Vaughan Williams’Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis ( John Barbirolli Conducts English Music for Strings, EMI 7243-56726420). Barbirolli wears his heart on his sleeve—surely he is the British conductor closest to Leonard Bernstein in this sense—and some may prefer the stiff-upper-lip–suppressed-volcano-of-passion approach of Adrian Boult in these works. Still, these are among Barbirolli’s best recordings, and his own past as a cellist surely added to his love for these capital string works.
No lover of string works would want to be without these exemplary performances, and archives contain many others worthy of note; may producers of historical recordings continue their excellent work, and bring us many more treasures in the future.
This article, "Old Strings, Good Strings," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
If you have a paid subscription, you are seeing this message because you have not logged in.
What do you want to do?
Log in using my current paid subscription account.
Subscribe now and get our best offer.