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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) [23:09]
Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 (1880) [28:44]
Arthur Grumiaux (violin)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Heinz Wallberg
rec. London, September 1973
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 8485 [52:00]

 


 

Marshall McLuhan had it right, after all: the medium really is the message. On vinyl, this was - and still is - one of my favorite editions of this program; I enjoyed the CD, too, but in places it leaves a rather different impression.

Take the beginning of the concerto. The sharper focus afforded by the digital processing, subtly underscoring the slightly close perspective given to the soloist, tends to highlight the power and size of Grumiaux's tone and the incisive thrust of his attack, rather than his noted tenderness and refinement. It's a persuasive and musical rendering - it just isn't quite the same one I remembered. Memory hasn't played me completely false, though: the central Adagio still melts and yearns with an often aching beauty, with a lovely hushed start to the phrases at 0:53 and again at 3.25. And Grumiaux infuses the Finale's extroverted theme with elegance while maintaining its forward momentum - nicely done.

The Scottish Fantasy, undeservedly dismissed in some quarters as a mere showpiece, seems consistently to elicit its advocates' best musical and expressive instincts. Heifetz (RCA) gave a glorious rendering in his day, and so does Grumiaux, in his own way, intoning the lyrical lines gravely with haunted, searching tone. The Scherzo's main theme (track 6 - Philips gives this piece five tracks) is buoyant and graceful, though some of the answering phrases crawl to a standstill. The highlight of the performance is, as expected, the central Andante sostenuto, simply phrased and sensitively colored to evoke a folksong-like nostalgia, expanding fervently as the writing fills out. Grumiaux quite correctly projects the Finale theme with square, emphatic accents, drawing rhythmic variety out of the more elaborate variations.

Unfortunately, the remastering exposes Heinz Wallberg's leadership, which on vinyl sounded easygoing and well-routined in the Central European tradition, as distinctly less than that. Imprecise attacks and approximate ensemble frequently make for smudgy textures - the orchestration isn't this murky. And while Wallberg seconds Grumiaux's musical intentions where he can - note the way the orchestra, at 3:59 of the concerto's Adagio, emulates the soloist's hushed attack - he's clunky in purely practical matters. In the concerto's Finale, for example, the violins don't quite "catch" the soloist when they join him on the theme (at 2:54, which is conspicuously late, and 5:01).

Grumiaux's unique insights and inflections are worth hearing, but the shoddy conducting precludes an outright recommendation even at mid-price. For those who only want one version of this once-popular coupling, I'd suggest Chung (Decca), whose tonal purity and lyrical impulse send both works soaring, and who gets far better-ordered backup from Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic. And Heifetz's Fantasy, sufficiently dynamic to galvanize the normally torpid Sir Malcolm Sargent into alert, decisive conducting, is of course hors concours. For collectors, this Eloquence issue will prove a valuable, even endearing supplement.

Stephen Francis Vasta 

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