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PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto 2 in G Minor, Op 63
with Serge Koussevitsky; Boston SO (rec. 20/12/1937, Symphony Hall, Boston)
Louis GRUENBERG (1884-1964)
Violin Concerto, Op 47
Jascha HEIFETZ (1901-87)
with Pierre Monteux; San Francisco SO
rec. 17/12/1945, War Memorial Opera House
Naxos 8.110942 [62.12]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

It's as though Heifetz said to his conductors when re-recording several concertos in the late 1950s (with the Prokofiev it was Munch): 'Here's a challenge Charles: let's beat my earlier recording time; prove I'm better than ever I was. None of this losing it after fifty.' He did it in the Glazunov, and in the Prokofiev, he clips his earlier time by 25 seconds, 15, and 18 in the respective movements. All the conductors were different (though it's the Boston in both Prokofievs, 22 years apart), and none, save Barbirolli, were known as weightily slow or very brisk (like Stokowski, also speeding up in old age and with whom Heifetz did not get on).

The Prokofiev Heifetz performance is stunning; and the Boston match with wonderful, velvety yet alert, wind-studded accompaniment. The solos here are nutty-flavoured and idiomatic. Remarkable sound for the period. Again, Mark Obert-Thorn is responsible. The move towards fairly noiseless surfaces has probably won out over the Pearl approach. Perhaps it was Michael Dutton, once gaining squeals for his squeaky-clean approach, who tipped the balance. Naxos's approach and choice of re-masterers reflects this. The film noir-et-monochrome sound, as Tully Potter suggests, flatters the violin in mono just as the acoustic recording flattered many singers who sounded less good on electric. No matter; the later stereo remake is excellently fierce and up-front, also recalling film tracks. Mono merely tames the excesses.

Lacking any recording of No. 1, the Prokofiev 2 is suitably coupled with the Gruenberg. Naxos don't always manage this, but when they do - as in the Elgar/Walton, it makes purchase mandatory. Gruenberg had great luck with his soloists, but his work died out when they did. Hence his 1930s opera, Emperor Jones, based on O'Neill's late 1920s experimental play, was championed by Lawrence Tibbett to huge success. But after him, it faded entirely, and unfairly. Written in three weeks in 1943, the concerto had a brief burst of popularity before vanishing into a half-deserved obscurity. There are few enough American string concertos in the repertoire, the Barber Violin Concerto of 1940 obliterating the two fine ones of Walter Piston (1939, 1960, recently acclaimed on the Naxos recording) or the later Bernstein Symposium taken up by younger violinists. Gruenberg here would seem to have emerged as a kind of Hollywood film-writer who got lucky with Heifetz. Well, no. In fact, consulting my sub-Grove as it were, one finds Gruenberg was part of the Russian-Jewish diaspora and although settling in America at two, he studied in Berlin and Vienna, and with Busoni for piano no less. He wrote only this one concerto and two violin sonatas and only smaller pieces for his own instrument, and in fact his affinity for violinists is evinced in this work.

The directions are English to a fault: 'Moderately' for the opening movement. The rising figure which promises much delivers something. Through the first movement we are subjected to tiny jazz and cowbell inflections, as if Copland and Virgil Thomson's prairies are only a session away. Half-way though the first movement a curious pre-echo of the happy heart theme of Korngold's Violin Concerto finale emerges. Perhaps Gruenberg had been watching Korngold films. One can only recall Korngold's riposte to Max Steiner's quip about Korngold getting worse and Steiner better. 'That's easy, Steiner ... you have been stealing from me and I have been stealing from you.' Gruenberg too, perhaps. Touches of marimba at around 7:40 suggest this. Vienna, either recalled or refracted through Korngold, figures highly in this concerto.

The second movement, despite its 'With simplicity and warmth' tag doesn't really relax into lyricism. Despite Gruenberg's attempts at popularity, the dark marimba opens flickering into a film-noire dream world, edged with nightmare and harrowed magic. Again, the themes seem memorable for as long as they last, but they lack the distinct cut of genius. Still, this movement edges pretty near to permanently lodging. But long before the finale the movement hits the high trail again at 4.40. It's quite unbelievable. It's as though Gruenberg couldn't trust to his talent and lets us in for a banal hoe-down, attractive enough in fact but by 6.22 when it calms down one is getting stereo vision from mono. What Tully Potter has termed an attempt at a popular concerto has in fact turned out a damaged confection of true impulse and lobba-de-lot-on, an Americana pizza with candy. The finale 'Lively and with good humour' following attacca isn't quite VE Day won by Ronald Reagan, but with a piano honky-tonking cheek by jowl with Heifetz we seem somewhere off Auden's 52nd Street (and that very different concerto/symphony of Bernstein's after Auden). It's tuneful though, cheeking us with Gershwin near-quotes, as elsewhere. One sequence has the horsy lumbering plains evoked by string players on the bridge (soon overtaken by the piano's new glissandi) - a ghost ride. And yes, there's whips, perhaps used with real point. Good humour? This was 1943. The premature celebrations seem forced. The sound, apparently endemic for all RCA/San Francisco recordings, has a suitable brashness, though its fierceness has been well-tamed and Heifetz caught beautifully. Worth it for the Gruenberg at this price, as well as the Prokofiev.

Simon Jenner

Listed Comparisons

Prokofiev - Violin Concerto 2 in G Minor, Op 63, with Charles Munch, Boston SO. (rec. 1959) RCD1-7019

See also review by Rob Barnett

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