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CD, MP3, FLAC: Pristine Audio

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809–1847)
Violin Concerto in e minor Op. 64 [27:05]
Max BRUCH (1838–1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor Op. 26 [23:35]
Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierino Gamba
rec. Kingsway Hall, London 15-16 January 1957. ADD.
First issued: mono, Decca LXT5334, July 1957; stereo, Decca SXL2006, September 1958
Transferred from LP SPA88

Experience Classicsonline

In various incarnations, including the 99p LP in the Decca World of ... series from which this Pristine XR transfer has been made, I lived with these Ricci performances until the advent of CD. I’m pleased to make their acquaintance again, since they can still claim to be among the best available. Given that the XR process has brushed up the sound noticeably, though not as spectacularly as on some of the 78 recordings which the label has produced, you may safely order the reissue without further ado. The greater part of the enthusiastic 1958 Gramophone review, quoted on the Pristine website and on the rear insert of the CD, is as valid now as it was then.

Nor can I balk at the description which Andrew Rose gives on the website of the process involved and the result:

“These recordings are certainly very good indeed for their era ... I was able to bring to the recordings some considerable improvements - XR re-mastering produced results akin to lifting a sonic veil from the originals, considerably sweetening Ricci's upper treble tone and bringing the whole recording several steps closer to the listener. When heard side by side with the original the effect is immediate and utterly convincing - the 1958 recording sounds dull and dusty; the 2010 XR re-mastering sounds almost as if it had been recorded last week.”

I no longer have my copy of SPA88 for comparison, but memory suggests that he is right. In a blind test, you might have difficulty distinguishing this from much later recordings – I tried Tasmin Little’s Bruch on Classics for Pleasure, a good DDD recording, coupled with an equally fine Dvorák, but sadly no longer available, immediately afterwards. If nothing else, the re-mastering has removed the troublesome minor – and sometimes major – surface noise which afflicted my LPs however carefully I dust-bugged and parastated them.

To complicate matters, the identical performances, transferred from the Decca master tapes, are also available on the Belart super-budget label for around £5 (461 3692).

Australian Eloquence have also recently reissued Ricci’s performances of these two works, together with concertos by Beethoven and Dvorák, two CDs at super-budget price (480 2802, currently selling at AU$ 13.59 or £7.83 direct from Buywell). The Mendelssohn is offered in a later performance with Jean Fournet, but the Bruch comes in the same Gamba version as on Pristine. I haven’t heard these reissues, so I can’t comment on the quality of the re-mastering of either the Belart or Eloquence vis à vis the Pristine version, but Jonathan Woolf’s review – here – suggests that, at the tempting price, the Eloquence is well worth having.

Whatever the qualities of the Belart and Eloquence reissues, I greatly enjoyed hearing these performances again, though it no longer seems appropriate to describe Ricci as ‘caught out nowhere’, as he was in 1958, so much have technical standards improved since then. Not all the younger virtuosi, however, are capable of combining Ricci’s showmanship with delicacy of touch, both on display here at appropriate moments. He conveys the emotion of the slow movements of the Mendelssohn and Bruch, for example, without ever wallowing in that emotion: the Bruch is especially heartfelt without being weepy. By contrast, the Mendelssohn finale flies along apparently without a care in the world.

I’ve mentioned Tasmin Little’s recording of the Bruch with the RLPO and Vernon Handley (formerly available on 7629202) in connection with the recording quality of the Pristine CD. That recording was made over twenty years ago, comparatively early in Little’s career and, though she is accompanied by the more experienced Vernon Handley, they do make rather heavier weather of the first movement of the Bruch than Ricci and Gamba. The basic marking is allegro moderato, but I think they make a little too much of the moderato by comparison with the Decca/Pristine team. In the finale it’s again Ricci and Gamba who seem to me the more energetic: this time they take fuller account of the modifier, energico, in the marking allegro energico.

The Mendelssohn-Bruch coupling seems so inevitable that I sometimes have difficulty telling which is which. The downside is that it leaves the new CD rather short, which is one of only two criticisms which I have. Other Ricci recordings could have been used to boost the playing time, perhaps some of the shorter pieces which Eloquence have included on another 2-CD set, 480 2083. I’d have welcomed in particular his recording of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a work which many – myself included – rate almost as highly as the Violin Concerto. That’s perhaps a little too long, though Decca manage to combine the three works in Kyung Wha Chung’s highly-rated performances with Kempe and Dutoit (Decca Legends 460 9762). Perhaps Pristine, HDTT or Beulah will oblige us with Ricci’s Fantasy in the not too distant future?

Having just criticised a super-budget-price recording on the Warner Apex label for the lack of notes, it would hardly be consistent if I were not to make the same criticism of the present Pristine reissue, which sells for rather more. The ‘additional notes’ on the website – actually hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles – are no substitute.

These minor criticisms aside, I give a strong welcome to this reissue. Whatever versions you may have of these warhorses, there should be room for something as good as this in your collection.

Brian Wilson











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