> Great Violinists: Mischa Elman [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Great Violinists: Mischa Elman
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893):
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35* [34.29]
Sérénade Mélancolique, Op. 26** [8.36]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880):
Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op. 22*** [23.53]
Mischa Elman (violin)
*London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli
**Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret
***Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Alexander Hilsberg
* 19 & 20 December 1929 at Queen’s Hall, London
** 25 August 1930 at Victor’s 24th Street Studios, New York
*** 23 June 1950 at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110912 [66.58]

Naxos continue their invaluable series of budget price historical issues with this release celebrating Mischa Elman (1891-1967). Born near Kiev, Elman began to play the violin at the age of four. Seven years later his talent was such that he was accepted as a pupil by the great Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg (it’s Auer’s edition of the Tchaikovsky concerto which is recorded here.) However, Elman’s formal training only lasted until he was fourteen. After 1911 he was based in the USA. Tully Potter, the author of the accompanying notes comments that, after early celebrity, by the 1920s Elman’s star was eclipsed by the even brighter star of Heifetz.

Potter credits Elman as the man who "initiated and inspired the wave of superb Jewish violinists who poured out of the East European ghettos in the first quarter of [the twentieth] century." On the evidence of these recordings he certainly lacked Heifetz’s steely virtuosity and panache. On the other hand, he possessed a warm, generous tone and, as Potter observes, it seems that he was more effective in slower music than in passages of "fireworks".

This performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto is one of the most mellow, reflective even, that I can recall hearing. For example, the passage following the first movement cadenza (track 1 from 12’22") is played with an unusual degree of seamless legato; I can imagine many listeners will find the playing here too smooth. The first movement as a whole is almost gentle in Elman’s hands; it is certainly poetic but after a while I began to crave more urgency and fire in the playing.

The wistful melancholy of the slow movement suits Elman’s style better. Indeed, this is a rather affecting account of the music. The finale has something of the bite that was missing in the first movement - though it could take more. The accompaniment from Barbirolli and the LSO, though rather backwardly recorded, seems deft and attentive. It was work such as this which brought Barbirolli to the notice of several great soloists and helped to lead him a few years later to the podium of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Though the balance favours the soloist at the expense of the orchestra (as was usual in those days) the sound is perfectly acceptable and Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer is a good one.

The source material for the other Tchaikovsky item was clearly less satisfactory for there is quite a bit more surface hiss apparent. Elman’s performance of the Sérénade Mélancolique is similar to his account of the concerto’s slow movement. He is at home with the songful nostalgia of such a piece and plays it with affection and feeling. It may be a fairly slight work but Elman invests it with just the right degree of pathos, without over-indulgence. The sound of his violin reproduces quite well but the orchestra sounds confined. To my ears the HMV engineers, working in the Queens Hall achieved much better results than did their American colleagues a few months later

The Wieniawski concerto was recorded much later in Elman’s career and, naturally, it gets better sound. The orchestra, of course, is the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing for contractual reasons under a none-too-subtle alias. Here they are conducted by their then-Concertmaster and Assistant Conductor, Alexander Hilsberg, who was himself a pupil of Auer. The recording was made in a pretty reverberant acoustic but still sounds well. I was intrigued by the rather east European sound of the first horn (sample his short solo on track 5 at 0’17"). At this time American orchestras very often showed the influence of European Jewish émigrés in their string sections but it is much less usual, I think, to find such evidence among wind and brass players. Hilsberg and the orchestra support Elman well.

I must admit that the work itself is not one which appeals to me very much. The music seems to be pretty feeble. However, Elman projects the solo part strongly and with conviction. Once again, he appears to best advantage in the slower, lyrical passages and the second movement, a Romance, strikes me as the most successful.

This is something of a mixed disc. The interpretation of the Tchaikovsky concerto is idiosyncratic. As such, it will not appeal to all but it is an interesting alternative view and it is certainly a sincere account of the work. It would not be a first choice but it should not be overlooked. If the Wieniawski is to your taste, you will want to investigate this performance. These are truly performances from another age and will be of great interest to violin aficionados though their appeal to non-specialist listeners may be more limited, even at the Naxos price.

John Quinn

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