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Mischa Elman and Zara Nelsova
CD 1
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26 (1867)
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Violin Concerto No.2 in D minor Op.22 (1870)
CD 2
Edouard LALO (1823 - 1892)
Concerto in D minor for cello and orchestra, (1877)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 (1872)
Mischa Elman (violin)
Zara Nelsova (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 1953 (Lalo and Saint-Saëns) and 1956 (Bruch and Wieniawski)
RETROSPECTIVE 93651 [51:57 + 47:16]
Experience Classicsonline

Elman and Nelsova used to occupy a collectable cachet in the LP market and perhaps they still do. So to conjoin the two string players in this way is not entirely unreasonable, I suppose. Others things suggest it. All the recordings were made at the Kingsway Hall with Boult conducting the LPO. The Elman concertos date from 1953 and the Nelsova brace from 1956. They are all in mono.

Elman was well past his best by now but could still play with burnished intensity when the occasion demanded. The Bruch was a hobbyhorse of his and his playing is on a par with his other recordings at this period. It's a shame the opening paragraphs weren't redone because he's terribly flat. His portamenti are prominent though not extravagant for him, although as he was very forwardly recorded his playing is in sharp relief and the LPO is distantly balanced. As ever considerable metrical freedom is the name of the game for Elman. His first movement trills hold things up, his rubato being almost vocalised in its expressive freedom. One can hear Boult chomping at the bit during all this and when Elman stops the English Knight reasserts a conventionally fast tempo. Things go better in the slow movement where breadth and lyricism can flow unimpeded more appropriately. Curvaceous portamenti fleck a finale that, with some stolid double stopping, reflects Elman's stoically sedate tempi.

Elman had only recently recorded the D minor Wieniawski concerto so this new one might have seemed an indulgence. Clearly he is no match for the incision of Heifetz or the panache of the young Stern, whose own recording was made almost contemporaneously with this one, but there are pleasures. Elman's ethos is one of bel canto lyricism, with succulent finger position changes and an unhurried legerdemain. His tone is no longer the opulent lava flow of the first three decades of the century, his sense of line is once again elastic. Passagework is vested with a certain strenuous wit and of course he relishes the songful slow movement.

Three years later Boult teamed with the Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova. Leonard Rose had earlier made a celebrated recording of the Saint-Saëns with Mitropoulos in New York and he was to make another in London with Charles Mackerras in 1967. Nelsova however, if not quite in Rose's orbit or that of Janos Starker in this work, proves a most worthy exponent. She subtly varies her vibrato and plays with great narrative assurance. Phrasing is natural, her technique entirely unruffled and her collaboration with Boult sympathetic. In the more exiguous charms of the Lalo such qualities are reprised, though the work is more of a display vehicle. Even in its unnecessarily long first movement she proves adept at piecing together its rhetoric. She shows here why she was one of the most admired cellists of her time. I heard her towards the end of her career in the Elgar, which she played beautifully. She could have made a recording of it at around the time she made these discs, but the honour fell to Anthony Pini.

Now a few warnings. Firstly ignore the ambiguous claim of the packaging that this is the Bruch Concerto No.2 in G minor. It's No.1. Normally this typo wouldn't matter so much but Elman was one of the few players of his generation who played Bruch No.2 and actually recorded it for Decca around this time in London with Fistoulari. A small warning, then. A bigger one comes with the claim that these are all First Ever CD Releases. Obviously ignore that. The Elmans were out in Japan before the end of the last century - the Bruch was on POCL-3915 and the Wieniawski on PCOL-4594. More recently you can find them on the Testament Decca sets devoted to concertos - SBT 4 1343, a four CD set issued back in 2004. The Nelsovas are also on a Testament disc, in this case SBT1361. They are also on Decca Digital Masters 475 6327, a tremendous set of five discs dedicated to the cellist and also issued back in 2004.

As for the transfers of the Nelsova recordings this Retrospective is cut higher than the Decca and has tried to bring the sound forward somewhat. Both the Testament and the Decca are more detailed. The Testament is kinder to Elman's tone; this Retrospective makes it sound edgier and terser than it should.

Where does this leave us? The impecunious might want to take a punt on this. It conjoins two stalwarts of the 1950s catalogues who were increasingly sidelined in favour of younger players. The transfers however are not as good as the established labels. And if you are tempted by this two disc set, you will be far more tempted by the conspectus sets on Testament (Elman) and Decca (Nelsova).

Jonathan Woolf 



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