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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Violin Concerto No.3 in b minor, Op.61 (1880) [28:31]
Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Violin Concerto No.4 in d minor, Op.31 (1850) [29:58]
Violin Concerto No.5 in a minor, Op.37 (1861) [19:05]
Arthur Grumiaux (violin)
Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux/Manuel Rosenthal
rec. Maison de Mutualité, Paris, December 1963 (Saint-Saëns, Vieuxtemps 5), March-April, 1966 (Vieuxtemps 4). ADD
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 4428561 [77:51]



By general consent, the third is the most popular of Saint-Saëns’ violin concertos and the two Vieuxtemps concertos, erstwhile specialities of Heifetz, make good couplings for it. Given that Grumiaux is the soloist and the recordings sound surprisingly well, it looks as if Eloquence have another well-filled winning bargain on their hands. These are after all 40-odd-year-old ADD and they’ve certainly stood up better to the passage of time than your humble reviewer.
 
These performances of the two Vieuxtemps concertos have already appeared on a European Eloquence CD, coupled with his Ballade and Polonaise (468 204-2), in which form at least one reviewer thought the sound too congested at climaxes. Philips recordings of the 1960s were never in the same league as Decca’s – they hardly ever got the D for demonstration-quality in the old Stereo Record Guide – but the sound has been nicely tidied up for the present reissue. The recording does become a little heavy, verging on congestion at times, but never distorted. The transfer is made at quite a high level; turning down the volume 2dB or so restores a more natural level and reduces any congestion. You could hardly be fooled into thinking it was a modern DDD recording, but it certainly never spoiled my enjoyment of this CD.
 
It is possible to regard these concertos as virtuoso fodder in the manner of the Paganini concertos but that is only part of the story. These works may look back to Paganini – No.5, written as a showpiece for Hubert Léonard, more so than No.4 – but they deserve to be taken more seriously, with more than a hint of the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos. (A hint of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasia, too, in places.) as far as I know, there has only ever been one recording coupling a Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto (the 5th) with the Mendelssohn (Chee Yun with the LPO and López-Cóbos on a deleted Denon CD in 1995) but the coupling would be an apt one. Heifetz’s 1962/3coupling of the Fifth with Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 and the Scottish Fantasia (slightly abridged) is equally apt. (RCA Living Stereo SACD 82876 71622 2). Jonathan Woolf noted some blips on the master-tape in his review of the Heifetz; I wonder if the problem does not arise from the degree of tinkering involved in converting to SACD, just when RCA were beginning to reissue their recordings from this period and earlier in stunning stereo.
 
Berlioz even described the Fourth Concerto as a symphony with principal violin. Perhaps he was thinking of his own Harold in Italy, that not-quite-a-concerto for viola, but he is also likely to have been contrasting it with the concertos of Paganini and Spohr.
 
Grumiaux is always fully equal to the technical demands of the music but he also goes beyond mere display. His performance of the Fourth Concerto is as fully integrated with the orchestra as Berlioz’s comment would imply. Nor does he seek to polish off either of these concertos in spectacularly quick time: his version of the 5th at 19:05 is a degree slower than Heifetz’s on RCA (17:27) In fact, if you are looking for showiness, look elsewhere: Grumiaux is master of the art which conceals art. He is a violinist for all seasons, equally at home in what are still among the best non-period-instrument performances of Bach’s Violin Concertos (Philips 420 770-2) and the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (currently available only on a 1951 Medici mono recording, MM0202). His version of the Mozart Violin Concertos (Philips 438 323-2 or 464 722-2, both 2-CD sets) has become my recording of choice after a long search.
 
A 6-CD bargain-price collection (475 7825) offers a wide range of his recordings, recorded between 1955 and 1977 and ranging from Vivaldi, Bach and Handel to Tchaikovsky and Wieniawski. Jonathan Woolf recommended as a Bargain of the Month an equally wide-ranging repertoire from older recordings on an earlier 6-CD collection (473 014-2, billed as a limited edition but still available). Don’t ignore his many chamber-music recordings, especially the CD of French Violin Sonatas (426 384-2). He even accompanies himself, in dubbed form, on the piano in Violin Sonatas by Mozart, Brahms and Grieg, partnered by István Hajdu in the Grieg, on Philips Eloquence 476 7930, also reviewed by Jonathan Woolf. You may also wish to explore the Grumiaux/Lamoureux/Rosenthal partnership in Chausson’s Poème, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Ravel’s Tzigane and Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et rondo capriccioso and Havanaise on Eloquence 462 5792.
 
In his review of the Lalo CD Jonathan Woolf uses a number of terms to describe Grumiaux’s playing which I am going to borrow because he has already stolen all my descriptive clothes. Equally apposite to the performances on the current CD are: stylish, evenness of production, supremely elegant. JW also describes Grumiaux’s playing as arresting, which it is, paradoxically because he doesn’t try to be arresting. Most of all JW hits the nail on the head in his last sentence, where he speaks of Grumiaux’s elevated art. Follow the link to that review and it’s all been said.
 
The Saint-Saëns concerto, his third and last, is even more worthy of being taken seriously than the Vieuxtemps and Grumiaux again makes a very strong case for it. In all three concertos he is well supported. The Lamoureux Orchestra may not be one of the world’s greatest but Grumiaux seems to have had a special rapport with it and its conductor, Manuel Rosenthal, and they give their all for him in much the same way that the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande used to play as it were beyond their capabilities for Ansermet. JW’s descriptions which I have applied to the Vieuxtemps will serve just as well to describe the Saint-Saëns performance.
 
If this Violin Concerto inspires you to explore more of Saint-Saëns music beyond the usual suspects (Carnival of the Animals, etc.) there is a wonderful bargain 2-CD of his chamber music on Apex 2564 61426-2, nominated a Musicweb Bargain of the Month by Michael Cookson.
 
And if you like the Vieuxtemps, you can add the complete recordings by Mischa Keylin on Naxos for very little extra expense. For starters try the CD of nos. 5-7 on 8.557016 which Paul Serotsky recommended with just one work overlapping with the Grumiaux.
 
As for the present CD, these concertos may not be major league but they are very attractive, especially when played as well as this, with Grumiaux pulling off the Beecham trick of making the music sound better than it probably is. If this has been shorter than my usual reviews, it is not due to any to any deficiency in the CD but solely attributable to JW’s having stolen my critical clothes. The booklet is, as usual, much better than most super-bargain CDs other than Naxos, but the information that Concerto No.4 is “cast in four movements” is at odds with the track listing of three movements. Perhaps the right hand should have checked with the left. I note, too, that JW gives the date of the Vieuxtemps 5th as 1858, whereas the Eloquence booklet says 1861.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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