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Manuel PONCE (1882 - 1948)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1943)
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 - 1957)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major Op. 35 (1937-39)
Miranda Cuckson (violin)
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Paul Freeman
Recorded at ICN Polyart, Prague, October 9 and 10, December 1 and 2, 1999
CENTAUR CRC 2513
[57. 52]


Written five years before his death, the Violin Concerto was Ponce’s last major work. It has always been closely associated with Henryk Szeryng, to whom it was dedicated and by whom it was premiered. His recording of it was last available on ASV CDDCA 952 and was first available on an HMV LP. This was a fairly late recording by the sixty-six year old violinist and his reflexes, and vibrato, have very slightly slowed although it is still a strikingly successful performance. His hegemony in the work was almost total and in fact dedicated Ponce-Szeryng admirers can seek out other recordings made or taped over the years. The first was with the Colonne Orchestra and Bour (the premiere recording) made for Odeon. Others include a live Preludio featuring the fiddler back on his native soil with the Polish National under Krenz from 1958 and a Melodiya traversal with the USSR State under Khaikin. The ASV is with the RPO and Bátiz, made in June 1984, three years before Szeryng’s death. So much for Szeryng. How about the Centaur newcomer?

Cuckson is an agile player with an attractive, centre-of-the-note clarity. She brings reserves of technique and lyrical elegance to the Ponce, a work that can appear – or maybe is – diffusely eclectic, especially in the longish opening movement. That said I’ve always loved the deeply lyrical second subject over a pedal point – most attractive here – and the scurrying but rather conventional passagework for the soloist. The tension between the national and modernist idioms is never quite resolved, but it is notable how well Ponce integrates native dance elements into the fabric of the first movement. This is something for which historically he has been given somewhat less than his due, I think. There are occasional hints of Hindemith along the way as there are, more rapturously, of Delius in the passage immediately before the extensive cadenza. The triplet-insistent coda is well played here – though surely the final bars are somewhat too grandiose, more Ponce’s responsibility than the orchestra’s. As is well known Ponce embeds his 1910 Greatest Hit, Estrellita, into the second movement – fragmented, alluded to, half revealed. The notes don’t discuss it but I was always under the impression that Estrellita, like Elgar’s Salut d’amour, was one of those songs sold cheaply to a publisher. If so the reminiscence takes on an ambiguous air; memories of Ponce’s celebrated song, regret, bitterness? Well, it certainly doesn’t sound bitter because this is soaringly lyrical music, played with perhaps too much restraint here. The Czech National sounds a bit earthbound. The finale is a Corrido dance, impressionistically elegant, with some cool orchestration. The winds can turn exotic but the strings remain discreet and gradually the giocoso sprit pervades the whole band. This is certainly an attractive reading – a little small-scaled and with occasionally diffuse orchestral support.

Coupled with the Ponce is the Korngold, an unlikely disc-mate I’d have thought but one written a couple of years after the Ponce. I say ‘written’ but stitched, weaved, fashioned, edited, compiled and elaborated would be better words to describe this joyous if sinful confection. Not only is it an unusual choice to accompany the Ponce but it owes its life and existence to an equally unlikely begetter – not Heifetz, as many think, but none other than the arch Philosopher of the violin, proposed architect of Pan-Europeanism as a political concept, the youth who played to Brahms, Bronislaw Huberman. It wasn’t Huberman who premiered it – that was Heifetz, whose recording still holds sway and who reveled in its glittering virtuosity and vocality, its glorious lyricism and surging drama. You can find much, though not all, in this performance. She stresses the chaste lyricism at the heart of the Romance (with its Anthony Adverse Straussisms) and is bracingly attentive in the Finale. She must yield to others in matters of tonal effulgence but otherwise this is a winning performance. Indeed this is an attractive if, again, unusual coupling of two mid-century works that embody entirely differing musical aesthetics to make their points.

Jonathan Woolf



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