This is an important disc which preserves the playing of Efrem Zimbalist (1889-1985), a Leopold Auer pupil and formidable exponent of the violin literature, whose long life was devoted to performance and teaching. He did make recordings, though not as many as one might suppose, given his status as one of the great triumvirate of Auer alumni – the other two being Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. This was, in any case, an arbitrary selection of players and even in the 1920s people talked of another Auer pupil, Toscha Seidel, as being a more representative player than the rather more aloof and patrician Zimbalist.
Zimbalist made single sided 78s a-plenty, but his major sonata undertakings were of Brahms’ Op.108 sonata and one of the solo sonatas by Ysaÿe. His only studio concerto was the famous one of Bach’s Double Concerto, with Kreisler, and an accompanying string quartet made under the acoustic process, and reissued many times.
So it’s welcome news that we have two major broadcast concerto performances available in this disc. I’ve known them for a good while, and I am wholly delighted that they are appearing in this way; the caveat regarding the Sibelius is something I shall come to later. The Brahms was a ‘live’ performance at Symphony Hall with Koussevitzky in 1946. Incidentally, I have a tape of another Zimbalist performance of the concerto from 1944, given in Cleveland with Leinsdorf. The Brahms from Boston has appeared before on LP and CD – the latter was on EKR CD1401, coupled with Toscha Seidel’s Chausson Poème. This Mark Obert-Thorn restoration effortlessly supplants that muddy, tubby effort. Zimbalist’s playing is very personalised, very elastic and reveals his famed ‘long bow’ at frequent moments. He could maintain a full body of sound for ages and his approach to melody lines was to slow and savour them. Occasionally, given his somewhat limited sound, this courted sentimentality. His performance is wholly removed from Heifetz’s raptor instincts in this work, taking greater time, space, employing a wider range of emotions and treating the work rather more episodically. After the Kreisler cadenza, which has Zimbalist additions, and at the end of the movement there is appreciative applause – as indeed there is at the end of all three movements, Koussevitzky adding a perfectly audible ‘bravo’ as well at the end of the slow movement. This is played in a light, legato-rich and relaxed manner, Zimbalist refraining from obvious contrasts of tone and mood in favour of consonance. There’s a small patch of acetate damage three quarters of the way into the movement. Discreet slides inform the jaunty finale – by and large Zimbalist was a very ‘clean’ player, and this clean-limbed playing is up to tempo, nicely phrased and enjoyable. Koussevitzky animates counter-themes and brings a full body of weight to tuttis, following his occasionally errant soloist with great adhesive qualities. This is a major document for violin lovers. I should perhaps add that my tape of this work includes a full spoken announcement introduction; Pristine has retained only that portion where the announcer guides, as it were, soloist and conductor to the stage - which is fair enough.
The Sibelius was performed in January 1944 in Cleveland and conducted by Rudolf Ringwall. The performance is quite slow as well, a feature of Zimbalist’s performances generally, sharing something of Elman’s elasticity of phrasing without his individuality of bowing or molten depth of tone. If only we had an Elman performance of the Sibelius! Zimbalist performs with balletic elegance, and a tight, light, somewhat unvaried tone, but excellent technique. His intonation, it’s true, does fractionally wander, but the slow movement is quite mournful, albeit limited by a certain hauteur and lack of tone colour from the soloist. This lack of vibrance is what limits the playing. He is as slow as Anja Ignatius in the first movement in her famous wartime set, but despite taking 9:30 in the Adagio doesn’t summon up as much expression as many others who take it a good deal faster.
But there is a real problem here, honestly set out by Obert-Thorn. For the first four minutes in the first movement the source material had an extraordinary eight second delayed echo, which means that it sounds like one vast tape loop. The violin trails itself, like Time’s Arrow, backwards as it goes forwards. Frankly it is all but unlistenable. This is a terrible shame as I, and any other critic, must honestly mention this insurmountable problem. There may however be a solution. I have a tape of this performance, which I obtained many years ago. It has no such echo. If Pristine thinks it appropriate they can borrow my copy – or that of anyone else who may also have it. In this way, the performance will retain its integrity. I believe it’s important that this can be done. Zimbalist was a fine musician and, despite my strictures, he deserves to be heard.