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Jonathan Woolf
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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character), Op. 35 [38:52]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Violin Concerto [34:40]
Alfred Wallenstein (cello); René Pollain (viola); Michel Piastro (violin) (Strauss)
Joseph Szigeti (violin: Bloch)br> Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (Strauss) London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (Bloch)
rec. 7 April 1932, Carnegie Hall, New York (Strauss); live, 9 March 1939, Queen’s Hall, London (Bloch)

Beecham and Szigeti invariably brought out the best in each other. Here they are teamed in Bloch’s Violin Concerto, the first British performance of the work that Szigeti had premiered three months earlier with Mitropoulos in Cleveland. Shortly after this Beecham-directed performance at Queen’s Hall in London, Szigeti recorded it with Charles Munch in Paris. In November he broadcast it with Mengelberg directing the Concertgebouw. Both the Munch and Mengelberg performances are familiar by now, and have had several incarnations, either on LP or CD. This Beecham one is much more evasive. I don’t have the 1973 Beecham Society LP to which restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn alludes in his brief notes, but that seems to have been the only prior release. There are a few gaps – acetate changes during the recording – and they have been filled in using the studio recording in Paris with Munch. It’s noticeable listening on headphones but has been smoothly done so won’t detract overmuch from ordinary listening.

Szigeti proves quite as admirable as in his other incarnations of this work, and the Queen’s Hall manages, just about, to cast its acoustic spell over the performance. No, the acetates leave a little to be desired if judged critically but they are from March 1939, after all, and such survivals from London concert halls are very rare, unlike those in New York or Berlin, say. The brass sounds brittle – an acoustic matter – but the music’s hieratic qualities are all there. Tempi are very similar to the Munch and Mengelberg, as one might expect – but, lovers of the concerto, please note that the later classic Totenberg LP performance is very much more deliberate in the outer movements. There’s some percussion overload, a perhaps inevitable corollary of amateur recording but also intense lyricism and even a degree of opulence. Touches of on/off sound may disappoint sterner auditors but I am very pleased with the overall result, and delighted to be able to welcome this combustible and exciting reading back to circulation.

The last time I reviewed Beecham’s Don Quixote it wasn’t this one in New York, nor was it the Tortelier recording, rather it was the live one he gave at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956 with John Kennedy (cello) and Frederick Riddle (viola). Beecham’s performance with cellist Alfred Wallenstein, violist René Pollain and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York’s leader, the scintillating Michel Piastro, was made in 1932. It was the work’s first recording, made the year before the composer himself recorded it with cellist Enrico Mainardi. As ever in this work Beecham holds the expressive poles in perfect balance. He encourages – and gets – eloquent playing from the orchestra’s wind players – the clarinet principal in particular - and though the strings have to compete with a recording that doesn’t especially promote their corporate sound they phrase beautifully. He is tighter, structurally, in New York. Later he was to take the Knight’s Vigil and the finale in decidedly more measured and overtly expressive a way than here – though the music-making remains impressive whichever approach he adopted. Wallenstein is less characterful than Tortelier, but he’s not helped by a recessive recording quality – there are times when the clarinet seems as loud as the cello. Pollain plays well, though he’s not quite Riddle’s equal. So, despite an unusual recorded sound this is a very personal and very eloquent Don Quixote and has been well served in this restoration.

Beecham was one of Strauss’ most adhesive and ardent champions and he proves a master colourist in the Bloch. The collaboration with his string soloists proves enduringly valuable.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous reviews: John Quinn and Rob Barnett

Masterwork Index: Don Quixote