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Mischa Elman
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Violin Concerto No. 2 in E BWV 1042 (1717/23)
Partita for Violin No. 3 in E – Prelude
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750)

Serse – Ombra mai fu (Largo)
Suite No. 14 in G – Gavotte
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Op. 1 No. 3
Violin Sonata No. 4 in D Op. 1 No. 13
Violin Sonata No. 6 in E Op. 1 No. 15
Mischa Elman (violin)
Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Collingwood, recorded in 1932 (Concerto)
Herbert Dawson (organ) recorded in 1932 (Serse – Ombra mai fu)
Wolfgang Rosé (piano) recorded in 1949 (Sonatas – Gavotte recorded in 1950)
Recorded 1932-50
BIDDULPH 80206-2 [69.44]


It’s hard to keep up with the discography, not least in terms of Japanese CD reissues, but I’m not aware that Elman’s Handel Sonata recordings have been reissued in over fifty years. He made them in 1949 for Victor and they were consolidated in a set (WDM 1590, later LM 1183) that few will have heard. Though he was past his best, most glowing years, Elman still had a strong following and these echt Romantic performances will satisfy many. He employs all the trappings of expressivity to keep the sonatas living ornaments of seductive tonality and phrasing – subtle portamenti, variance of repeated notes and vibrato usage among them. It would be pointless to compare these performances with performers of today, much less purveyors of original instruments but even more instructive comparisons can be made with his contemporaries in this repertoire. His tonal effulgence had not yet starved, as it was to do in his later Vanguard sessions, but equally was not quite the opulent lava flow of the teens of the century. His portamanti and diminuendi stud the Sonata in A, his second movement Allegro is stout and rather corpulent (not unattractively so) and the concluding Allegro rather hangs fire. Even in 1949 this must have seemed a very Old School performance. Certainly in comparison to the propulsive, muscular, effortlessly singing and lithe acoustic recording of the Sonata, made in the early 1920s by Albert Sammons, Elman comes off a poor second best (except in terms of recording quality). Similarly he cannot match Szymon Goldberg in the Fourth in D for sensitive discretion, much less Szigeti’s wonderful earlier Columbia. Instead we should listen to Elman in the finale of the Sonata (misprinted as an Adagio in the booklet) for a superb example of legato phrasing. For all that it does sound breathless and non-attacca in impulse it gives one an idea of how an arch-romantic approaches this kind of literature and refashions it in his own image. But how one misses Szigeti’s flair and almost improvisatory freedom and his sheer excitement – and how prosaic some of Elman’s phrasing can sound in its wake. For the probably spurious but very Handelian Sixth one can admire his jog-trotting tempo in the Allegro second movement and his intensely slow and expressive Adagio, spun in endless curlicues of vibrated tenderness. Turn to Albert Spalding’s 1935 Victor though and a different work emerges – palpably more energised, incisive and alive.

The Bach Concerto was recorded in 1932 with an orchestra under Lawrence Collingwood – at least some sources give him, others giving Barbirolli. Two things are sure, firstly that Elman and Barbirolli recorded it a couple of months earlier but the result was unsatisfactory (the report remarking that there was insufficient body of tone) and never released and that when Elman went back into the studios to re-record it, it was around the same time as his recordings with Collingwood of the Beethoven Romances. Whoever was conducting – and we’ll stick with Collingwood as per the notes - this is an affectionate performance that now sounds rather bloated – but only through the gauze of seventy years of performance practice. At the time, as can be seen from Jacques Thibaud’s acoustic 1924 recording with Ortmans, Elman’s tempi were unexceptionable – though maybe the slow movement was pushing it even then (he takes about a minute longer than Thibaud). Still there is his lustrous tone, his constant portamenti, lyric highlighting of phrases and finger position changes. There are strong orchestral rallentandi but the one at 6.20, which will sound so peculiar to modern ears, comes at a side join and should be listened to in that context. Elman cannily varies his vibrato in the slow movement, shading and winnowing it and articulates the finale at a confident lick. He returned to the Concerto many years later with Golschmann in 1960 for Vanguard and in this LP performance he is very much quicker all round, shaving nearly two minutes off his more indulgent youthful self in the slow movement alone.

He recorded very little solo Bach and the Prelude from the third Partita gives us the chance to hear his provocative way with repeated phrases – always on the move and varied – as well as the good tempo and his practical, romantic instincts. For some reason the Herbert Dawson accompanied disc of Ombra mai fu has proved rather an elusive one for Elman fanciers so it’s good to have this grand piece here, along with Dawson’s registral changes and Elman’s security in the higher positions. The Gavotte from the Suite in G could do with a treble boost.

This is a fine and in the main (the Bach is on Pearl) long unavailable conspectus of Elman’s Bach and Handel. Regarding the documentation I’ll be boring and urge Biddulph again to include original matrix and release details (I’m going to keep doing this until they do) but the transfers sound first class; I’ve not heard the Handel Sonatas in the original issues but the Bach Concerto contains body and is warm and detailed. Elman’s admirers – and I’m one – shouldn’t hesitate.

Jonathan Woolf



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