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Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64* (1844) [29:10]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) [24:33]
Pinchas Zukerman* (violin)
Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 15 January 1971, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Cologne
PROFIL PH06010 [53:43]


These are live recordings made by West German Radio, Cologne. I don’t know if an audience was present; there’s no applause and no audible audience noise. On the face of it this CD offers a most attractive proposition with two great artists caught in concert. However, there are one or two important caveats.

Oddly, the two recordings sound rather different. The Mendelssohn concerto seems to be set in a very resonant acoustic – too resonant, in fact. In particular the bass booms on my equipment. This surprised me since I’ve heard other recordings made in this venue and I haven’t been bothered by resonance. Intriguingly the Debussy performance didn’t seem to be affected to the same degree – perhaps the presence of a much larger orchestra dampened the acoustic?

The other problem I have with the concerto is that the speed adopted for the first movement is on the slow side. This lends a romantic, almost ruminative atmosphere, which is attractive in some ways, not least because Zukerman’s violin sings so sweetly, but I’m not sure if it’s really in the spirit of this work. For me, Mendelssohn’s delightful concerto needs more buoyancy and sparkle. As the first movement progresses things lighten up somewhat – perhaps at the soloist’s instigation? – but the essential lilt and lightness never quite seems to be there. The wonderful moment at the end of the cadenza when the main theme reasserts itself under the soloist’s passagework comes off well enough but elsewhere the orchestral support is just a bit too heavy and rich. The last five minutes or so of the movement are lively, even ardent, and I wondered whether it was at this point that Zukerman decided to take the performance by the scruff of the neck. If so, was it Giulini’s view that prevailed earlier on?

In the gorgeously lyrical slow movement Zukerman spins a lovely line. His singing tone is absolutely suited to this music and, happily, the pacing is much more satisfactory. At the start of the finale Zukerman skips along impishly and much of what follows is very good but once again I’d have enjoyed the performance even more if it had possessed just an extra degree of lightness and caprice. As it is, this is a good but not great performance of this delectable concerto.

As I indicated earlier, the performance of La Mer is less affected by acoustic resonance, though the orchestral bass is still somewhat heavy. In the first movement I admired Giulini’s typical care over detail and the light and shade that he brings to the music. In his hands Debussy’s score has a warm, Mediterranean feel. However, there were occasions, such as the lead in to the final peroration, when I felt he was prone to linger just a little too much.

At the start of the second movement, as we hear thematic fragments on various instruments, I was again conscious of the resonance of the hall. There seems to be some distance between the players and the microphones. Giulini directs a sensitive account of the movement, although as the music gathers momentum around 5:00 I did wonder if there was sufficient sense of sweep and passion. The harp tuning was a little too democratic in the closing pages. The finale receives quite a powerful performance. Giulini invests the music with a degree of weight and some of his tempi are on the broad side but not so much as to rob the music of forward momentum. The conclusion is noble.

As ever, a Giulini performance is thoughtful, fastidious and completely musical. Over the last few years I’ve been delighted at the number of live recordings by him that have become available. Even if one doesn’t agree with every detail of one of his performances, he is always very well worth hearing. So it is with these two performances. I can’t help but have a few reservations and I’m not sure we hear the great Italian maestro at his very best. That said, these are still performances that are valuable overall and I’m glad to have them in my collection.

John Quinn




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