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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Peter I TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto *
Sérénade Mélancolique #
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Violin Concerto No 2 +
Mischa Elman, violin with
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli December 1929 *
Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret August 1930 #
Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Alexander Hilsberg June 1950 +
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110912 [66.58]


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The extraordinary thing about Elman is that he seems to have emerged fully formed as a violinist. It’s difficult now to appreciate quite how revolutionary his playing must have sounded when, at the age of 12 and trained by Alexander Fidelman, he auditioned for Fidelman’s own teacher, Leopold Auer. The great pedagogue had never heard anything like it, as he freely admitted, and Elman remains one of those rare cases of the development of an independent tonal aesthetic in isolation of other influences – he had never heard either Ysaye or Kreisler. His period of ascendancy was real but brief – chronology has tended to telescope his primacy in the concert halls of Europe and America – but it was an unarguable one, lasting from his debut in Berlin in 1904 until the arrival of Heifetz in 1917.

Elman’s 1929 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto wasn’t in fact the first – Huberman had beaten him to it and another Auer pupil Eddie Brown had beaten both of them, though his 1924 recording wasn’t issued at the time and has only ever emerged on a very rare LP. Throughout Elman’s performance we can hear the battery of devices open to a player of his standing – succulent portamenti, a ravishing tone, lava-like in its molten flow, which no-one, not even Toscha Seidel, could ever match. It remains one of the most remarkable sounds in recorded music. We can also hear the unhurried tempi, the unobtrusive excellence of Barbirolli’s conducting, and a performance of persuasive cohesion strictly on its own terms. As he grew older his playing slowed inordinately, as much a question of accommodating a failing left hand as of structural choice, though he was, by nature, generally a master of sedate tempos. His unusual posture must have complicated the matter – he was a small, bull-necked and stocky man with short arms and thick fingers (one of the many reasons advanced over the years for the existence of that molten vibrato ascribed it to the depth of his finger tip pads). Those who have seen the Vitaphone short of 1926 contained in The Art of Violin will have seen how he played at a definite angle, with the scroll of the fiddle pointing downwards, the better, one supposes, to allow Elman’s left hand to overcome stretching problems.

Ageing and a slowly diminishing technique had begun to take their toll by the time he came to record the Wieniawski, the other major work on this excellently transferred disc. There’s now less of the fervid intensity in his tone but still much of the old Elman’s tonal lustre remains. In comparison with the pin point Heifetz recording or with the almost contemporaneous 1953 Stern one can quite see how old-fashioned Elman must have seemed. By the side of Stern’s coruscatingly involving playing – surely one of his greatest performances on disc – Elman’s fires burn less dazzlingly and generate less obvious heat. Nevertheless it’s always timely to salute Elman – the BBC has preserved at least two recitals, from 1961, and failings acknowledged, his was still an immense talent; let’s hope they will make an appearance in their series. Meanwhile if you’ve never heard Elman’s 1929 Tchaikovsky you really should. Here it is, cheap, well presented and transferred and a fitting living testimony to a remarkable violinist.

Jonathan Woolf

Elman’s succulent portamenti, ravishing tone, lava-like in its molten flow, which no-one could ever match. One of the most remarkable sounds in recorded music. … see Full Review


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