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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878) [38:38]
JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903, rev. 1905) [32:34]
Ginette Neveu (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Issay Dobrowen (Brahms); Walter Süsskind (Sibelius)
rec. 16-18 August 1946 (Brahms); 21 November 1945 (Sibelius), Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, England. ADD.


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EMI Classics state that their Great Recordings of the Century series features re-mastered recordings using the latest advances in audio technology. This mono coupling dates from the mid-1940s and first went through digital re-mastering in 2005.

The featured violinist on this EMI Classics set is Ginette Neveu who was a completely new name to me. Neveu was born in Paris into a musical family and as a child prodigy made her solo debut aged seven appearing in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra under Gabriel Pierné. She was related to the composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor and her brother Jean-Paul Neveu became a classical pianist. Initially taught by her mother, she studied under the tutelage of Line Talluel; Jules Boucherit at the Paris Conservatoire and also with George Enescu; Nadia Boulanger and Carl Flesch.

1n 1935 Neveu became a celebrity when aged fifteen she trounced over 180 rivals to win first prize at the prestigious Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition at Warsaw. The standard must have been exceedingly high as David Oistrakh from Odessa in the Ukraine (then in Russia), who would go on to become a world famous virtuoso, could only achieve second place. Neveu was immediately signed up for extensive concert tours that took her all over the world. Her international career was unsurprisingly interrupted by the Second World War and she was mainly confined to living in Paris. She was not able to make her London debut until 1945. Tragically her career ended in 1949 when on a concert tour her plane flew into a mountain whilst attempting to land at the island of São Miguel in the Azores.

Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto in 1878 with expert guidance from his friend Joseph Joachim the eminent violinist. Joachim was the dedicatee and premiered the score on New Year’s Day in 1879 in Leipzig. Hubert Foss described the score as, “…a song for the violin on a symphonic scale - a lyrical outpouring which nevertheless exercises to the full his great powers of inventive development.” The score is one of the most glorious of all the violin concertos in the repertoire and certainly one of the most admired. To give an indication of the popularity of the Brahms score the ‘’ website on their chart of the ‘Top 100 Classical Works’, apparently based on data from UK and USA performances and CD sales, places the score as the fourth most popular violin concerto in the UK and the third on the USA chart.

During three days in August 1946 Neveu and the Philharmonia under Russian conductor Issay Dobrowen attended the Abbey Road Studios in London to record the Brahms concerto. The mono sound quality is reasonably acceptable. However I have many far older recordings in my collection with much better sonics than this and I can’t help thinking of the many superb historical recordings that the eminent restoration engineers Mark Obert-Thorn and Michael J. Dutton have successfully restored.

In the massive opening Allegro non troppo the approach is direct but her degree of spirit can seem rather limited. Neveu is controlled and lyrical in the central Adagio with playing that seems to lack a touch of passion compared to some of the leading versions. I was not entirely convinced by the Finale. Her playing is attractive and warm yet it all felt rather lacklustre as if she was keeping a quantity of vitality in reserve. This Neveu account has achieved an amount of critical success, as for example in the ‘Penguin Guide’, but her interpretation left me rather underwhelmed, especially in view of the high quality of many of the rivals.

There are a substantial number of excellent accounts of the Brahms and I have over a dozen recommendable versions in my own collection. If I had to whittle my choices down to just three they would be: Nathan Milstein and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg recorded at Pittsburgh in 1953/54 for his commanding and compelling inspired playing. This is available as one of the Great Recordings of the Century on EMI Classics 5 67583 2. Milstein’s coupling of his commanding account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto makes this a quite magnificent and extremely desirable release. Pinchas Zukerman with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim for his deeply passionate and highly controlled 1979 Paris performance on Deutsche Grammophon ‘Classikon’ 439 405-2. Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner in a characterful and searching performance recorded in Chicago in 1955 on RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 61742 2. It seems a terrible shame not to include the following six sets, such is the exceptional standard, as any one of them would provide great enjoyment, but it would be remiss of me not to mentioned them: Maxim Vengerov with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim on Teldec 0630-17144-2; Joshua Bell with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi on Decca London 444 811-2 or Decca 475 670-3; Itzhak Perlman with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Carlo Maria Giulini on a ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ EMI 5 66977 2; Gil Shaham with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon 469 529-2; Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan on 445 515-2 and David Oistrakh and the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto Klemperer on EMI Encore 5 74724-2.

Sibelius was an excellent violinist who at one time auditioned as a player for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1903 composed his Violin Concerto. At the hurriedly arranged premiere a substitute soloist proved ill-prepared. The concerto was poorly received prompting Sibelius to withdraw the score and make substantial revisions. In 1905 the revised version was introduced by Karl Halir with Richard Strauss conducting. I understand that it was as late as the 1930s before Jascha Heifetz revived the work and finally the true quality of the score was displayed to the music world.

It was on a single day in the winter of 1945 that Neveu recorded the Sibelius at London’s Abbey Road Studios with the Philharmonia under Prague-born conductor Walter Süsskind. Walter Legge, the producer of the session, recalls that on the day of the recording London was enveloped in an exceptionally dense fog. The mono sound quality is superior to Neveu’s recording of the Brahms concerto, yet it may still prove a drawback for some listeners who prefer to hear modern digital sound.

In the extended and complex Allegro moderato Neveu’s playing sounds rather routine to my ears, failing to provide sufficient spontaneity and drive. There is certainly no suspicion of any dark and sinister undertones. The central Adagio di molto has far too much restraint, requiring an infusion of intensity and darkly burning passion. Neveu in the Allegro ma non tanto has a refined character to her playing but where is the vigour, the spirit and the passion? The Finale, once described by Sibelius as a “danse macabre”, in the hands of Neveu feels more like a summer’s day stroll through a cornfield. Again this performance has received critical acclaim from some quarters but I do not feel that there is anything outstanding here to merit the plaudits.

The Sibelius concerto continues to become increasingly popular with performers and audiences alike, and the catalogues contain many fine recordings. My particular favourite version is from the inspirational Cho-Liang Lin with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen in an exciting, authoritative and highly expressive performance. The release is from Sony Theta SMK89748. I also greatly admire the fresh, robust and steadfast account from Nigel Kennedy with the CBSO under Simon Rattle recorded in Warwick in 1987 on EMI Classics CDC 7 54127 2. I do not have a copy but I have heard exceptional reports of the 1985 release from Viktoria Mullova and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa on Philips 464 741-2.

A fascinating release from EMI Classics featuring the talents of Ginette Neveu, a performer whose life was tragically cut short, possibly before her prime. I don’t feel that there is anything remarkable here to trouble the extremely fierce competition in these two masterworks.

Michael Cookson  


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