Great Artists Collection: Violinists
Concertos by Beethoven (Szeryng), Elgar and Walton (Accardo), Berg (Gitlis), Shostakovich concertos 1 and 2 (Oistrakh), Saint-Saens concertos 1 and 2 (Hoelscher), Lalo Symphonie Espagnole and Vieuxtemp Fifth concerto (Mintz); Paganini 1 and Khachaturian (Tretiakov). Sonatas and other chamber pieces: Beethoven sonatas Op.25 Spring, and Op.30/1 and 2 (Grumiaux), Frank and Lekeu (Ferras) and a mixed recital of Paganini, Ernst, Bartok, Stravinsky, Stravinsky, Berio, Shchedrin, Dinicu and Saint-Saens (Kremer).
David Oistrakh, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Yevgeny Mravinsky), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (Gennady Rozhdestvensky), Arthur Grumiaux, Clara Haskil (Piano), Christian Ferras, Pierre Barbizet (Piano), Ivry Gitlis, Pro Musica Symphony, Vienna (William Strickland), Westphalia Symphony Orchestra (Hubert Reichert), Concerts Colonne Orchestra (Harold Byrns), Viktor Tretiakov, Estonian State Symphony Orchestra (Neeme Järvi), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (Dmitri Tulin), Henryk Szeryng, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Bernard Haitink), Gidon Kremer, Maria Bondarenko (Piano) Tatiana Grindenko (Violin II) Oleg Maisenberg (Piano), Ulf Hoelscher, Ralph Kirshbaum (cello), New Philharmonia Orchestra (Pierre Dervaux), Salvatore Accardo, London Symphony Orchestra (Richard Hickox), Shlomo Mintz, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Zubin Mehta)
Full Contents List at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9201 [10 CDs]
This set of ten CDs appears, as usual with Brilliant, at a remarkably cheap price. There is no booklet, and recording details given on each slip-case are sketchy.
Choosing the works for a compilation such as this might seem like a dream job, but in reality there will be considerable constraints according to what is available and what permissions can be granted. There are certainly a few questionable decisions here, at least for this listener, and whether this set appeals or not will depend rather more, I think, on the choice of works than on the list of performers.
The performance of Shostakovich’s First Concerto on the first disc seems to be the same one as appears on Chant du Monde (LDC278882) from the late 1980s. I say “seems” because although several interpretative details are identical, they soon get out of sync if you play them at the same time on two machines. Makes you wonder. In any event, the sound on the earlier incarnation is execrable, whereas this transfer, whilst preserving a certain glassy hardness and the forward placing of the soloist, is more than acceptable. The work was composed for David Oistrakh (1908-1974), and his performances, several of them recorded, will serve as examples to generations of violinists to come. One is struck in the first movement by the violinist’s astonishing power in double stops and in anything above the stave. Rare are those who manage to work up such a head of steam in the final pages of the Scherzo. The Passacaglia is played with heartbreaking eloquence, and the madcap yet strangely moving finale is sensational. The Second Concerto, like the Second Cello Concerto, is a more equivocal work, but one which rewards patience and study. This is a live performance, complete with a few coughs, scuffles and applause at the end. Oistrakh seems strangely ill at ease in the opening paragraphs, and the performance as a whole takes a little time to settle down. The sound is not great, the various timpani and tom-tom strokes really rather unpleasant, and the performance recorded a month earlier at the Proms with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Svetlanov, available on BBC Legends, is certainly preferable.
Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986) has long been one of my favourite violinists, but I had never heard any of his Beethoven sonata performances with Clara Haskil, recorded for Philips when he was in his mid-thirties. They are very fine, with playing of impeccable poise and refinement from both artists. The three sonatas have been carefully chosen, the genial Spring contrasting well with the darkly dramatic C minor. There are, of course, individual movements – or moments – one might prefer in alternative readings. For my part, I think there is rather more muscle to the music of the charming variations finale of Op. 30 No. 1 than these performers find. But otherwise the only serious drawback is the sound: the violin is well forward, and the piano appears to have its own, quite different, acoustic. More than once we have the distressing phenomenon, when the piano has the main line and the violin accompanying figuration, of hearing one of the finest violinists of the century apparently playing exercises. I hope collectors acquiring this set with be encouraged to explore further the work of this master violinist, all the same.
Hearing Christian Ferras (1933-1982) in Franck’s Sonata is a real treat. Unfailingly pure of tone and secure of intonation, with a rapid vibrato that adds to the intensity, especially in the upper reaches, the French violinist’s playing is just what is needed to bring out the best in this masterly work. Some listeners find the excitable scherzo somewhat overwrought, but I can take it, and Ferras plays it for all it is worth. The first movement, on the other hand, is a near-perfect blend of lyrical ease and dramatic intensity, and Ferras brings out both these qualities to perfection. Only in the finale did I think that a slightly more relaxed tempo might have underlined the heart’s-ease nature of the canonic passages whilst leaving the more robust, exciting music intact. Guillaume Lekeu was one of Franck’s pupil’s at the Paris Conservatoire. His Violin Sonata is less distinctive than that of his teacher, which is almost inevitable given his age. There are some lovely moments though, especially in the slow movement, in 7/8 time form much of its length. The other movements contain much energy, with a few novel sonorities and some fairly conscious virtuoso writing. Ferras, and of course his pianist Pierre Barbizet – Ferras rarely played with anybody else – play the work with total conviction, and these two sonatas, like the Grumiaux collection, represent an excellent starting point for an exploration of the work of this remarkable artist.
The reading of the Berg Concerto by Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis (b.1922) was knew to me; it is one of the finest I have heard. The first movement alternates eloquently between songful sorrow and ardour, whereas the anger as the second movement opens is palpable. The Bach choral arrives with something of a bump in many performances, but the moment is beautifully managed here, the preceding climax hardly finished with, so that the choral almost steals in. The soloist’s playing is technically staggering, the only ugly sounds confined to those places where the composer clearly intended them. The recording is more than acceptable for the period, textures becoming opaque and ill defined only at the second climax of the second movement. The orchestra plays superbly, and the composer’s markings respectfully followed. Some people find Hindemith’s Concerto somewhat intractable, but this is another excellent performance and one which very successfully brings out the work’s lyrical qualities. The disc is completed by another very fine performance, this time of Stravinsky’s glorious – and gloriously loopy – Concerto. The sound here is a fairly major drawback, however; it sounds strangely synthetic and there are strange balances resulting in passages where important elements in the orchestra are all but inaudible.
We’re all allowed our musical blind spots, and I’d have preferred to hear the Siberian Viktor Tretiakov (b. 1946) in almost any other repertoire than Paganini’s First Concerto, especially when one reads the tempting list of works included in the Brilliant boxed set devoted to him. It’s a remarkable performance though, recorded live, with every technical demand apparently met with ease. Khachaturian’s Concerto is another matter, and although I haven’t heard any of the more recent performance of this striking and colourful work, it’s difficult to imagine how they can be superior, and this in spite of the ropy sound, also live, with a fair selection of noises off, thumps and bangs and the woodwind at times almost comically distant.
The first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto from Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988) is magnificent, playing of enormous stature, remarkably successful in bringing out the work’s dramatic side without in the least sacrificing the lyrical. There are a host of interpretative details suggesting that both soloist and conductor – Haitink and the Concertgebouw are outstanding – had thought about the work anew. The recording is very fine, but the violin is rather too far forward, and this, combined with the soloist’s reluctance to play really quietly makes for a slow movement rather lacking in magic or inwardness, and a finale that seems too intent on robustness at the expense of charm and – what Beethoven requests – delicacy. Then there are a few seconds of dead silence between these two movements that effectively ruin whatever atmosphere the soloist has been able to create. I had high hopes for this disc, but it was ultimately disappointing. The Romances come off well enough, but even whilst admitting that it is difficult to make anything more of them than pleasant, undemanding pieces, the playing does seem routine here.
The disc devoted to Gidon Kremer (b. 1947) is a missed opportunity. Paganini’s Cantabile is a pretty enough tune, but the unaccompanied Caprices have always seemed to my ears a series of thoroughly nasty noises, and not even the great Estonian can convince me otherwise. Most of the pieces on this disc have been recorded in concert, and are unaccompanied. It is very hard going. The two pieces by the Moravian virtuoso Ernst are technically brilliant, especially the transcription for solo violin of Schubert’s masterpiece, but why anyone would ever want to listen to them, and even more, want to learn to play them, is a mystery. Stravinsky’s Elegy, for viola, not for violin as given on the cover, is an affecting piece but marred, as are several of the performances on this disc, by noises from the live audience. The three Berio pieces, played with Tatiana Grindenko, suffer in a similar way and would benefit from being heard in a different context. The pieces by Shchedrin and Dinicu are perhaps the most interesting on the disc.
If you enjoy the melodious confections of Saint-Saëns, the disc devoted to German violinist Ulf Hoelscher (b. 1943) will be pure pleasure. Virtually all this music requires remarkable virtuosity from the soloist at one moment or other, and this Hoelscher provides in spades. His intonation is spot on, even in the most hair-raisingly rapid passages, and in the more melodic ones he plays with a ravishing, singing tone. It is difficult to imagine this music better done, and the orchestral support under Pierre Dervaux, is outstanding. The recording is excellent too, with near-perfect balance between soloist and orchestra, and only a Jumbo-sized harp in the slow movement of the C major Concerto provoking adverse comment. Several of these works may be unfamiliar even to experienced listeners, and it is a pleasure to recommend in particular the remarkable violin and cello duo, La Muse et la Poète, in which the violinist is most poetically partnered by Ralph Kirschbaum.
Italian violinist Salvatore Accordo (b. 1941) should have been perfectly suited to the Italianate warmth of Walton’s Concerto, but as it turns out, the Elgar is the finer of the two performances. It gets off to a bumpy start with an orchestral introduction in which Hickox fails to establish an integrated pulse, fine though the playing is. Then Accardo’s way is strangely detached and cool, but one gets used to it as a valid alternative view. His tone, rich and full in the lower registers, has a certain thinness above the stave, however, that will not please all listeners. The less inspired passages in the first movement development section do not always convince here, and tension flags from time to time in the finale too, but overall this is an impressive reading which, whilst not up there with the finest, is certainly an interesting addition to any collection. The Walton is less successful. Problems of intonation, little more than a suspicion in the Elgar, here become seriously troubling; one of the most glorious moments of this glorious score, the return of the second subject of the finale, is more or less ruined. The very opening, a gift of a melody, is played with little character or expression, and much of the playing throughout seems routine. Kyung Wha Chungs’s performance of this piece, with Previn, has never been surpassed in my opinion, and this one is very pale by comparison. Recording details are not given, but these performances first appeared on Collins Classics in the early 1990s.
If the repertoire appeals you can hardly go wrong with the final disc, devoted to Israeli violinist Shlomo Mintz (b. 1957), and a straight reissue of a DG disc. Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole gives ample opportunity to demonstrate dazzling technique, whilst possessing considerably more musical interest and charm than many a virtuoso piece. Mintz is indeed dazzling in the more challenging passages, but is also particularly convincing in the gentler, more lyrical passages such as the various second subjects, where his rich tone and intense yet pleasing timbre are great assets. There is nothing profound here, and the Vieuxtemps Concerto is even slighter fare, but Mintz makes as much of it as can be made, and more than many violinists would achieve. The famous Saint-Saëns piece rounds off an enjoyable disc.
A very mixed bag. Many fine performances, a few less so, and does the choice of works appeal?
And a further review of this set from Rob Barnett
Brilliant Classics again prove themselves masters of the art of cutting their cake along as many planes as possible. No one could accuse them of not maximising their yield on recordings licensed to them. And, by the way, that’s not a complaint. Listeners with exploring minds and timid wallets benefit so long as they get to grips with what they are getting for their small outlay.
The two Shostakovich concertos are signature works for Oistrakh. The first was written in 1947-48 yet not premiered until 1955. The Scherzo is an exercise in macabre grotesquerie. It romps along with scathing sparks flashing and flying. These are surely not radio recordings and there is no applause. Hearing the finale of the Passacaglia-Burlesque driven and goaded along by Mravinsky I am sure Shostakovich must have had the example of the Khachaturian concerto in mind. The sounds of Rachmaninov's The Bells echo through the gunfire-convulsive ending. The Second Violin Concerto was written as a birthday offering to Oistrakh on his sixtieth. Written in 1968 the world it inhabits is filled with foreboding and haunted uncertainty. It is a difficult work to get into. That said Rozhdestvensky gives fantastic support through the Moscow Phil and the drum cannonades are given with deafening emphasis at 10.01. The work ends with rapped-out volleys and gritted teeth ruthlessness. There is applause this time.
The patrician Grumiaux is heard here in three Beethoven sonatas through pebble-hard and boxy 1956-7 analogue. This is Beethoven given a classical spin and a somewhat hissy spin at that . It’s an occasionally testing listen. Brace yourself.
This disc offers better analogue sound. The experience is so much sweeter in these lively and sun-drenched performances from Ferras and Barbizet. They trounce the demands of the Franck Allegro’s sprinting pulse. Ferras sounds even sweeter in the songful Allegretto Poco Mosso. I am pleased to see the sadly short-lived Lekeu putting in an appearance. As a composer he lavishly splashed across three wonderful discs in the recent 50CD Cyprès set from the Liège Phil – don’t miss it – there are copies on Amazon. Lekeu is here represented by his meaty Violin Sonata. It is ecstatically romantic stuff but slim-limbed and elegant. Ferras is a stirring and muscularly fine player with plenty of projection but also restraint and taste.
We encounter mono (1953-62) on this disc from Ivry Gitlis. His is not a big name but clearly one well worth knowing. His Berg is penetrating yet tender - one of the loveliest of versions even if the sound is getting on for sixty years old. The Hindemith is only half a century old and is vibrant, close-up and clean allowance being made for a discreet bed of hiss. The Hindemith is surprisingly beefy. However the Stravinsky is beginning to show its age though the performance is full of salty vim and caustic vigour.
Tretiakov is heard in a live concert complete with coughs and throat-clearing in the bombastic Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1 with lapel-grabbing sound. Sparks fly all over the shop as he scuds, accelerates and smashes his way though the challenges of this showpiece. Ten years before the Paganini we hear Tretiakov in the Khachaturian. The sound is not as vivid as for the Paganini and the soloist’s slenderness of tone seems undernourished by comparison with the various Oistrakhs and indeed Tretiakov's own self in the Paganini.
Szeryng's 1973 Beethoven concerto is recorded with a pleasing sense of spatial image and a good audio spread across the speakers. The performance is strong on old style Olympian loftiness and philosophical song. Szeryng is intimately recorded and the whole image and effect is very agreeable. It’s all in wonderful analogue sound and the same goes for the slighter two Romances.
Gidon Kremer is caught well outside what we now regard as his ‘zone’ in radio recordings made while in the Soviet Bloc. These are all showpieces of which I got the most from the Stravinsky Elegy for solo violin and this despite the coughing of one member of the audience. I cannot work out what is happening with the de Bériot three duets though I think he achieves the two lines through double-stopping rather than two track recording.
Shchedrin's In the Style of Albeniz was possible a sketch or a companion piece for his style in the Carmen ballet written for his wife Maya Plisetskaya. He tosses off a wildly fume-wreathed Hora staccato. Spectacularly witty and exemplifying mechanistic mastery is the extract from Carnaval des Animaux complete with applause. These tracks span 1967 to 1990.
Listen to the eager acceleration of Hoelscher in the finale of the Griegian First Concerto which, but for its name and three movements, could easily have passed for one of the nine short genre pieces which fill out the two discs around the core of the three concertos. This is a short work (almost 12 minutes) of shivering Beethovenian fire - full of incident and invention. Bruch's First Concerto is a model (conscious or unconscious) for these concertos. Bruch also wrote three but it was his first that held the high ground while his other two languished. In the case of Saint-Säens the Third has found a place in record catalogues while the other two have had to struggle against the odds. The Second Concerto has an Ossian-inflected andante espressivo with harp figures lending depth to a sentimentality teetering close to Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. This makes way for a dashing Polacca scherzando with sideways glances towards Beethoven's 'dance apotheosis' - Seventh Symphony.
La Muse et le poète is a sober double concerto in which Ralph Kirshbaum's cello cuts a deeper path than the violin. This is soulful, not in the manner of Bruch's Kol Nidrei, but rather like the Beethoven Violin Concerto yet with a Tchaikovskian honeyed nostalgia over the proceedings. The explosive little Valse-Caprice is as arranged by Ysaÿe. The two Romances are just that: well rounded, not impulsive, musing and touching though lacking a strong profile.
You would be hard-pushed to better this disc as a coupling. It brings together two grand English violin concertos. The recording is clear and potent whether in sotto voce musing from the solo or in tingling shivers in the finale of the Elgar.
I first became aware of Accardo from his pioneering DG set of the Paganini violin concertos with the LPO and Dutoit. I recall Accardo being centre-stage in a late night relay by BBC Radio 3 of the Elgar concerto with (I think) the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis. That would have been circa 1974 and it was one of those gutsy transformational performances that scored its way deep into the memory. Almost two decades later this disc appeared or more accurately the Collins Classics CD original on 13382 (reissued on Regis and Alto). Speaking from fading memory this Elgar is not quite as molten as the broadcast version but it is a very strong contender. My all-time favourite is the Heifetz with a for once inspired Sargent leading the very same orchestra as appears here. Looking at the Elgar alone I also rate highly the Zukerman with Barenboim (1970s CBS), the two Kennedy recordings (EMI), Bean (EMI) and Haendel (BBC Radio CD rather than Testament). The last four minutes of the Elgar both nourish the heart with nobility and excite with adrenaline. The Walton is also good with tempos at times pushed somewhat but with leeway afforded Accardo for amorous rhapsodising. This is another good performance with equally fine attention to transparency and audio fidelity. Hickox and Accardo take their time most satisfyingly in the dreamy ostinato in the middle movement making the zest and flitter of the presto sections all the more effective. In the finale seductive tenderness (4:20) meets rapturous grandeur. A generous pairing which majors on inspiring playing from Accardo and colleagues matched with a refined yet leonine recording.
Shlomo Mintz offers a slender and sweetly sustained Symphonie Espagnole superbly if distantly recorded in Tel Aviv in 1988. His Vieuxtemps is more closely recorded but I find little in it to hold the attention. The Saint-Saens is a staple of the recording studio - less so of the concert hall where such short morsels struggle to find a place. Mintz does this rather neatly and connects with the Spanish business of the Lalo.
Recording quality varies quite a bit but it's always at least listenable. Two discs of the ten are in digital sound. There are no liner notes but fairly full discographical details are given on each sleeve.
People fulminate about Brilliant but there is no detriment in their purely commercial approach. They are after all in business. Their multifarious re-packagings and re-couplings of the library they have licensed from hither and yon can confuse but the prices are right. The presentation of these recordings to different audiences should win new friends for the music and keep alive the reputations of Gitlis, Tretiakov and the rest.
This is an inexpensive outing among ten violinists of the twentieth century and their repertoire both contemporary and nineteenth century. It's a mixed bag but you will learn from and enjoy much that is here.
An inexpensive outing with ten violinists of the twentieth century and their repertoire both contemporary and nineteenth century.
Full Contents List CD 1 [64:44]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1976)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1948) [36:29]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
rec. 18 November 1956
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129 (1967) [28:13]
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. 27 September 1968
CD 2 [68:22]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24, “Spring” (1800/1) [22:47]
Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 31, No. 1 (1801/2) [19:56]
Violin Sonata in C minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (1801/2) [25:00]
Clara Haskil (piano)
rec. 1956/7, Vienna
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [29:20]
Guillaume LEKEU (1871-1894)
Violin Sonata in G major (1893) [28:24]
Pierre Barbizet (piano)
rec. 1966 and 1968
CD 4 [70 :12]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto (1935) [23:51]
Pro Musica Symphony, Vienna/William Strickland
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Violin Concerto in D (1940) [24 :22]
Westphalia Symphony Orchestra/Hubert Reichert
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D (1931) [21:09]
Colonne Concerts Orchestra/Harold Byrns
CD 5 [75:18]
Nicolo PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 (c. 1817) [35:30]
Estonian State Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 11 November 1978
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto (1940) [39:45]
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Tulin
rec. 13 October 1967
CD 6 [63 :24]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 [25.09]
Romance No. 1 in G, Op. 40 [8:04]
Romance No. 2 in F, Op. 50 [9:26]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 26/27 April 1973
CD 7 [52:52]
Cantabile in D major [4:03]
Caprice No. 4 in C minor [6:26]
Caprice No. 17 in E flat major [3:42]
Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST (1812?-1865)
Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer”
Grand Caprice after Schubert’s “Erlkönig”
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Tempo di Ciacona, from Sonata for Solo Violin (1944) [7:55]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Elegy for solo viola (1943) [4:57]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Duet for violins, “Leonardo” [1:33]
Duet for violins, “Annie” [0:38]
Duet for violins, “Aldo” [1:54]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
In the style of Albeniz (1973) [3:39]
Grigoras DINICU (1889-1949?)
Hora Staccato [2:19]
Czardas in A minor [2:41]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Creatures with Long Ears (from The Carnival of the Animals) (1886) [1:02]
rec. 1967 – 1990
CD 8 [76:09]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A major, Op. 20 (1872) [11:43]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C major, Op. 58 1902 [27:11]
Le Muse et le Poète, Op. 132 [15 :32]
Romance in C major, Op. 48 [6:48]
Romance in D flat major, Op. 37 [5:53]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Pierre Dervaux
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, February 1977
CD 9 [77:01]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910) [46:13]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1943) [30:48]
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. Studio 1, Abbey Road, London December 1991
CD 10 [60:01]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie Espagnole (1874) [31:48]
Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 [19:01]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 (1863) [9:12]
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, 20-27 October 1988