Aram KHATCHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto (1940) [38:51]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Rhapsody for violin and orchestra No.1 Sz87 (1928) [10:45]
Rhapsody for violin and orchestra No.2 Sz90 (1928 rev 1944) [10:28]
Devy Erlih (violin)
Orchestre des Cento Soli/Serge Baudo (Khachaturian) Karel Husa (Bartok)
rec. March 1956 (Khatchaturian) and September 1953 (Bartók), Salle Wagram, Paris

Devy Erlih (b.1928) is something of a cult violinist. He was a student of Jules Boucherit at the Paris Conservatoire in 1942. His debut came after the war, and he has since been widely active as soloist, leader of chamber orchestras, director, and teacher. He also composes. He has performed many contemporary works by French composers and has not neglected those by Milhaud, Sauguet, Tomasi and Jolivet.

His recorded legacy is not huge and is generally confined to smaller labels, though he was an evergreen on Ducretet-Thomson and Inédits. Among his more interesting recordings are Denisov’s First Sonata, Loucheur’s Concerto, and the 1907 sonata by Ropartz, though he left LPs of staples such as the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos.

Maybe it’s because of this smallish repertoire on disc, but also because of his teaching, that fiddle fanciers are so drawn to him. Certainly I cherish my LP of the Khachaturian on The Record Society, one of those heavy-duty jobs where you have to pull the LP out of its sleeve via a thick wood hinge; rather like the way waiters hang newspapers in Viennese cafes. Nevertheless I’d be the last to suggest that it offers the kind of sultry pleasures afforded by such as Louis Kaufman or David Oistrakh; a different kind of pleasure, certainly, and a very precise, Gallic one.

Erlih’s vibrato is tight, without undue width; his tone is finely centred. The playing is precise, pure-toned. Some of the passagework is unduly slowed down in the first movement, with orchestral counter-themes unhelpfully and unmusically protracted. But the echo effects between violin and winds, and then violin and violin, are accomplished well, and the musing cadenza is technically adroit, though at his speed the resumption of the initial tempo is all too bumpy. Erlih takes the slow movement at a dangerously spun-out legato, but it has melancholy and yearning, though a lack of oratorical tonal breadth. Ricci is just as slow in his recording, though he’s by far the more febrile artist. Erlih retains aristocratic purity. He’s not breakneck in the finale like Kaufman and Oistrakh, in his preserved performances, or even Yulian Sitkovetsky, but he doesn’t dawdle like Mischa Elman, who was too old to take it on when he finally got around to it. Erlih catches the finale’s wit and also widens his vibrato appreciably; it’s as sleazy as it ever got with him in this movement and then it’s not often. So this is a patrician recording, brashly recorded, averagely played but sympathetically accompanied by Serge Baudo, whose Honegger symphonic cycle in Prague I’ve always hugely admired.

The fillers are the two Rhapsodies by Bartók, recorded in Paris three years earlier. The orchestra is the same—the Orchestre des Cento Soli—but the conductor is different; Karel Husa. This may come as a surprise as Husa, who is 90 this year, is admired as a composer. But in the earlier part of his career he also conducted; in fact there’s a recording of Brahms’s First Symphony with this orchestra, as well as the first European recording of The Miraculous Mandarin, Honegger’s Le Roi David, Carmina Burana, the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts and a slew of his own music. He’s a perceptive conductor of Bartók and Erlih plays well, though again without the dazzle and earthiness of other contemporary practitioners. One might say that he meets Bartok half-way.

It’s good news for Erlih’s admirers that these old LP performances are now available; I’m not sure if they have been transferred elsewhere — Japanese compilers are often ahead of the game when it comes to violinists, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised — but this French company has done well with their transfers, which are ungimmicky, direct and free of egocentricity: not unlike the performances in fact.

Jonathan Woolf

Ungimmicky, direct and free of egocentricity.