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Zino Francescatti (violin) in Performance
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35 (1878)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Arthur Rodzinski recorded 24 October 1943
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 26 (1868)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Frank Black recorded 29 April 1945
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor (1880)
ORTF/Charles Munch recorded at the 1951 Strasbourg Festival
MUSIC AND ARTS CD 1118 [79.50]


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www.musicandarts.com

These live performances derive from the earlier years of Zino Francescatti’s international fame, by which time he was already in his early middle age. His first recordings, which were collated some years ago on Biddulph, were made between 1922 and 1928 but Francescatti, who had been born in 1902, was still earning a living in Parisian orchestras at the end of the nineteen-twenties. His talent gradually won through and he was to become one of the three leading international French violinists of the day – alongside the ageing but still appreciated and continent-hopping Thibaud and the comet that was Ginette Neveu (both of whom of course were to perish in air crashes during their travels).

The trio of concertos that Music and Arts have collected are from lacquer discs from various sources (not noted in the documentation). A warning alerts prospective purchasers as to the sound problems one can expect – clicks and distortion and limited frequency response – but as I’ve commented below this is really only of concern in the Saint-Saëns, which, annoyingly, also turns out to be the most comprehensively attractive and successful performance. Still, the other performances hardly lack for refined lyricism and interest and they can join Francescatti’s commercial recordings with just pride. He set down the Tchaikovsky twice in the studios, both times in New York, the first with Mitropoulos in 1954 (Columbia ML4965) and then just over a decade later with Thomas Schippers conducting (Columbia ML6158). These were long admired recordings but never quite challenged, in the case of the Mitropoulos, such as Heifetz, Milstein or Ricci, to cite just three contemporary discs. With his conductor Rodzinski, who was later to record the Concerto with a very different player, Erica Morini, we have an attractive, elegant, digitally exceptional reading that never quite sparks fires. It’s a performance very much in the Francescatti Tchaikovsky mould – articulation is precise and notable, lyric phraseology is sweetly elevated, he doesn’t use much extra bow weight for strenuous passagework and there is still intensity but no steely drive such as Heifetz imparts. The first movement shows him abjuring the oratorical-protagonist profile embodied by such magisterial tonalists as Elman or the rather leonine austerity of the early Milstein recording. Instead the Frenchman is sympathetic, tonally rich, but the reading is more of a classicist one than a romantic. The slow movement is not too slow thankfully, albeit expectedly. His lyricism is unquestionable here and in the finale, where there is some percussion overload as there had been muddy bass frequencies earlier, Francescatti doesn’t dig into the string aggressively. There is lyric generosity here and no attempt to force the pace (he actually takes an identical tempo to Elman’s 1929 recording with Barbirolli). In the end this is a satisfying rather than an overwhelming performance but still admirably played.

The centrepiece is the Bruch. As with Tchaikovsky so with Bruch; both conductors who recorded with him in the former set down discs with him in Bruch, Mitropoulos in 1952 (Columbia ML 4575) and Schippers in 1962 (ML 5751). Once more Francescatti is marvellously himself in his refusal to play to the hysterics’ gallery. His opening statement is lyric but lacks interiority, mystery. He holds back from many portamenti and expressive finger position changes but he does intensify his vibrato during the first movement and one can hear that occasionally problematical wideness of its usage that was characteristic of him. I tend to find it most problematic in paragraphs of romantic phrasing when the oscillating vibrato can impart a slightly artificial bulge to the emotive line. It’s not overdone here but it is audible. There is nevertheless a chasteness to his phrasing that is admirable though of course it’s not the ne plus ultra of romantic violin playing, hardly the most unbridled, voluptuous or emotively dashing of playing. He is on fine form though, no doubt about it, and remains one of the most inspiringly consistent of players even in literature that is maybe more openly effusive than is ideal for him.

And so to the compromised sonics of the Saint-Saëns, very much literature that one does associate with him. If you have the Mitropoulos-led 1950 Columbia 78 set or its subsequent incarnations on LP and CD (CBS, Philips, Sony Classical, numerous Supraphons) I doubt you will need this, fine though it is as an interpretation. There’s a Boulez-conducted LP of the Concerto again from New York on Lyrinx but this dates from late in Francescatti’s career – 1975 – and it’s not one I’ve heard. The sound derived from the lacquers of this 1951 Strasbourg Festival performance is muffled, constricted, and rather unattractive. Maggi Payne must have put in some very hard work to refine the sound signal but even she can’t work miracles. It’s by no means an impossible listen but it can be a struggle and Francescatti’s tone is rendered rather cellistic by the constriction. That’s a pity because he and Munch join in a fine reading. The Andantino is the highlight for me as it’s full of lyrical ardour and taken at his walking pace tempo. If ever the word refined means anything it means something when you hear his phrasing here – which is well nigh perfect (it would be good for some intelligent company to re-issue Henri Merckel’s 78 recording of this work with Coppola conducting to derive an even better panoramic view of authentic French playing of this work).

It’s good to have this disc. It joins Bridge’s Francescatti Library of Congress performances as exemplars of how to promote live material. These are in truth ancillaries to the commercial discography but they reveal Francescatti in all his affectionate and generous lyricism, supported by cast iron technique, for all that he claimed not to practise too much. The notes consist of a reprint of the Francescatti chapter from the late Henry Roth’s Great Violinists in Performance and cover his life and career with his accustomed authority and judgement.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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