Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806) [40:35] ¹
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No.5 in A major K219 Turkish (1775) [26:50]²
Josef Wolfsthal (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Manfred Gurlitt¹
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann²
rec. 1928-29 (Mozart) and 1929 (Beethoven), Berlin

Josef Wolfsthal (1899-1931) was one of the rising crop of inter-war German fiddle players, and one of the leading students of Carl Flesch. His early death ended a career of rising potential and one that, discographically speaking at any rate, had already witnessed two recordings of the Beethoven Concerto, the first a truncated acoustic but the second, as heard here, a complete electric made in 1929.

Wolfsthal had a quite tightly concentrated core sound. His tone is neither big nor especially variegated, but it is very sweet and is applied intelligently throughout. He largely abjures noticeably expressive portamenti but characterises with exemplary commitment, and brings a sense of spruce modernity to the Beethoven. That’s true of those passages in the first movement where older practitioners habitually slowed down; Wolfsthal is not inflexible here, but he does keep the tempi flowing relatively quickly, and he avoids wholly the trap of sentimentalising. His cadenza – here and in the companion Mozart Concerto, all the cadenzas are Joachim’s – is played with real dash and bravado. There’s a swift lyricism in the slow movement and a playful, controlled vitality in the finale, where, once again, he excels in the cadenza. It helps, that he plays with the Berlin Philharmonic, directed here by Manfred Gurlitt, a conductor and composer of perception.

Earlier in his career Wolfsthal had been concertmaster of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, and for the Mozart he joins his old orchestra, and the conductor Frieder Weissmann. One admires Wolfsthal here for his bright, pellucid sound. His phrasing is alert and alive, with an electric vivacity; and his trill is ringing and tight. He varies and deepens his vibrato width for the slow movement to considerable effect, as he does in the finale’s cadenza (with a brisk slide or two), but whilst there’s no great sense of a presiding personality at work, the playing is highly musical and impressive – and stylistically apt, for the time. I don’t have this 78 set, so can’t be sure, but the strong rallentando at 3:44 in the second movement sounds very much like a preparation for a side turn, which was a recurring feature of recordings on 78 and one not often enough singled out for comment.

You may well have come across Wolfsthal’s name in relation to Strauss; his solo in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme recording is still famous, as is his playing in Strauss’s first Ein Heldenleben traversal. Some of his recordings have been reissued, as here, but things such as Tartini’s Devil’s Trill, with Liachowsky, remain resolutely untransferred, so far as I’m aware. The acoustic Beethoven was released by Biddulph. This Pristine transfer of the electric version reminds collectors of Pearl’s release on GEMM CD9387 which, in addition to the two concertos, included a Beethoven Romance in a 1925 recording conducted by Thierfelder, the same conductor who directed the acoustic concerto. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers successfully eclipse the older Pearl, by virtue of their cleaner surfaces and greater detail.

Jonathan Woolf

Wolfsthal’s tone is neither big nor especially variegated, but it is very sweet and is applied intelligently throughout.