The American violinist Guila Bustabo (1916-2002) was much in demand to play Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the first movement of Paganini’s D major Violin Concerto. She recorded it in Berlin in 1940, Fritz Zaun conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, at around the same time she recorded the Sibelius Concerto. Nearly two decades later here Bustabo was in Munich, performing it again - for Bavarian Radio this time with the veteran Robert Heger directing the Munich Radio Orchestra. Much had happened to Bustabo in the meantime, and this isn’t the place for a biography of her extraordinary life, except to note that she was for some years not especially welcome in her native country.
The recording level is a touch low so volume adjustment helps, and the orchestra is a touch recessed, about which little can be done. Bustabo, fortunately, takes centre-stage. Her playing is still in many ways admirable and it’s lost much of the often startling metrical disturbances that afflicted her back in the 1930s when she could be very wayward indeed. There is plenty of expressive phrasing, though her tone is not especially big, and plenty of technical accomplishment to be heard as well. Her harmonics are excellent and so too is the way she dispatches the cadenza. She brings out a more tremulous vibrato for Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
, a work she didn’t otherwise record in the studio. The rapidity and refinement of her bowing can also clearly be heard.
The greatest interpretative challenges are reserved for the 1963 Lugano performance of the Brahms Concerto in which she’s partnered by Otmar Nussio. The tempo in the opening movement is conventional-to-relaxed, but it only really becomes apparent when orchestral counter-themes reach exhaustion levels trying to wait for her to move forward. This can sound slightly disjointed in the first movement, and a close recording allows us to hear plenty of bow changes. She plays the cadenza by Kreisler. The slow movement is somewhat of a piece with the opening, relaxed and not unattractive, whilst the finale isn’t quite as buoyant as could be. There’s not much sight or sound of gypsy abandon.
Yet this is an interesting disc, presented in accustomed digipak style with notes tipped in. Live performances have survived of Bustabo with Mengelberg in the Beethoven and Bruch G minor concertos, and there’s the much more recent Wolf-Ferrari with Kempe in 1972. Otherwise there is no Brahms, which was the principal discographic casualty, and now we have one. If it’s not a performance that bristles and bridles, that digs into the strings and drives blazingly, that’s probably because Bustabo had mellowed over time. Violin aficionados will welcome the opportunity this disc affords of tracing Bustabo in these rare performances, on the cusp of her long professorship in Innsbruck.
Masterwork Index: Brahms