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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, op. 26
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Violin Concerto
Josef Suk (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl

Recorded at the Rudolfinum, Prague, March 25-26, 1964 (Mendelssohn), September 11-12, 1963 (Bruch), January 18-19, 1965 (Berg)
Karel Ančerl Gold Edition Volume 3

SUPRAPHON SU 3663-2 011 [79:24]

 

In the 1960s Supraphon was an unfailing source of mid-price LPs which combined rough but stirring sound with performances that offered unmannered musicianship yet with no lack of commitment. In those Iron Curtain days the Czechs, now on the threshold of entering the European Union, still seemed "a far-off people of whom we know nothing" (Neville Chamberlain’s famous excuse for not responding to Hitler’s invasion of their country) and the very names of the artists, often long and unpronounceable (though not in the present case) bore the germs of romance.. One of the conductors we learnt to admire through these records was Karel Ančerl, a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz who led the Czech Philharmonic from 1950 to 1968 when, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, he left for Toronto to die in exile. His is an art which seems to have grown since his death in 1973; Supraphon are gathering together his many studio recordings in an ongoing Karel Ančerl Gold Edition while other sources are issuing live material from Toronto and elsewhere.

Another artist we learnt to admire was the violinist Josef Suk, great grandson of Dvořák as well as grandson of the composer Josef Suk, but needing no family name to boost his credentials.

All the same ... I suppose it is a reaction to the bureaucratic sameness of so much of today’s music making (plus the odd startling “new look”) that has led to so many conductors and instrumentalists who were appreciated in their day as fine musicians being proclaimed “great”. For all their fine qualities, were Suk and Ančerl quite in the “great” bracket?

As I have a further three issues in this series awaiting review I shall not attempt a complete answer here and now. Doubtless, too, several of my colleagues will be pronouncing on the other discs of this edition.

The Mendelssohn/Bruch coupling was a standard bargain recommendation in its day, and could still be so, especially with the famous Supraphon shrillness 95% tamed. The Mendelssohn is fleet and joyful, with a well-chosen tempo in the finale (brilliant but not rushed) and a tenderly expressed slow movement. The slow movement of the Bruch is particularly beautiful ; I also love the steady but lilting presentation of the theme of the finale. Suk and Ančerl find plenty of passion in this work although there are signs that Suk’s tone, sweet and pure as it was, was not very big.

Turn to the Menuhin/Furtwängler version of the Mendelssohn, though (currently available on EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5 66975 2 and reviewed by me for the site), and there is something more; a burning commitments, a zeal, that special whatever-it-is that makes for greatness. But greatness on this level does not come every day and it is doubtful whether Menuhin himself repeated it with another conductor. Among “normal” versions Suk and Ančerl stand high.

I think it rather a pity that the Berg was not left with its original – in both senses – coupling, the Bach Cantata from which he quoted in his Violin Concerto. However, if you like the sweet-toned romanticism of Mendelssohn and Bruch and are not so sure about the "modern" Berg, perhaps this will be the performance to convince you. Many early performances of this (and other works of the Second Viennese School) were so riddled with tensions resulting from the performers’ difficulty with the music that it was not easy to see how much of the fraughtness was due to this and how much was actually in the music. In 1965 this concerto was still only thirty years old, so it is something of a miracle to find it performed with such calm, such transparency, such clarity, such natural familiarity with every strand of its texture. It is not surprising this disc won a Grand Prix de L’Academie Charles Cros in 1968. It must have won many friends for the work. But nearly forty years on? The orchestral expertise can be taken for granted today, but do we still need to be soothed into believing this is not a terrible modern piece? Is the fraughtness not part of the work, is something not lost if the violinist does not sound on the edge of despair? I can only sum up by saying that if you believe Berg’s Concerto "To the Memory of an Angel" was intended as a seraphic evocation of the "Angel", then this may still be the best performance of all for you. If, on the other hand, you believe that Berg wished to express his desperate grief at the loss of his "Angel", then you will find an important element missing.

It would have been cute to have the original sleeve-notes, cast in an "English" that caused much idle merriment; instead we have full notes on conductor, soloist and music in generally very acceptable translations.

Christopher Howell

 



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