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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

A Tribute to Lydia Mordkovitch
A Survey by Rob Barnett

The death of the violinist Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014) was followed in cruelly quick succession by that of Brian Couzens (1933-2015) whose Chandos label made some sixty CDs with Mordkovitch. Couzens had a knack for discovering classical star artists. He signed up Mordkovitch in 1974 when he discovered her teaching in Jerusalem after spending years in concert and teaching activity East of the Iron Curtain. Five years later he founded Chandos. Few labels in recent years have recorded a violinist so intensively and to such substantial purpose as Couzens did with Mordkovitch. Only Naxos/HNH's efforts with Takako Nishizaki - born in the same year - exceed Mordkovich's record although their catalogue entries and repertoire choices strike out in largely different directions and contrasting effect. In recognition, Chandos has reissued four of her recordings with the label.

Pome – The Artistry of Lydia Mordkovitch
Anton Grigor'yevich RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894) Romance in E flat major, Op. 44 No. 1 Arranged by August Wilhelmj [6:02]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Album Leaf arranged by August Wilhelmj [5:25]
Serge RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 arranged by Leonard Rose [6:38]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899) Pome, Op. 25 [14:13]
Antonin DVOŘK (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance in E minor, Op. 72 No. 2 arranged by Fritz Kreisler [4:39]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Four Preludes arranged by Dmitri Tsganov [4:46]
William KROLL (1901-1980) Banjo and Fiddle [3:07]
Alan RIDOUT (1934-1996) Ferdinand (words by Munro Leaf) [10:51]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Sonate posthume for Violin and Piano [16:08]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Sospiri, Op. 70 [5:08]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
Marina Gusak-Grin (piano); Gabriel Woolf (narrator - Ridout); Julian Milford (piano - Elgar); Clifford Benson (piano - Ravel)
rec. St Michael's Church, Highgate, London 13-15 February 1996 (Elgar); Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk 22-24 March 1994 (Ravel); 12-14 February 1989 (other works)
CHANDOS CHAN10866X [77:12]

One can tell that Mordkovitch is an Oistrakh pupil - indeed one of her late discs was titled as an 'Oistrakh Tribute'. Her tone and production are, in this case, weighty and rich as is the Chandos sound. The Rubinstein is heavy with sentiment, soulful and steeped in molasses. The Wagner is unusual, being cut from the same bolt of material as the Rubinstein; perhaps a shade lighter. Both are heard in arrangements by August Wilhelmj. The Rachmaninov Vocalise sings as it should in an arrangement by that very fine cellist Leonard Rose whose role in the Brahms Double Concerto, for all its claustrophobic proximity, remains a glorious warming experience. This is one of a multitude of arrangements. I recently heard the composer's own version for orchestra in the luxury hands of James de Preist's Oregon orchestra in 1987 on Delos and would suggest you do too. The same disc also includes an unmissably voluptuous Second Symphony with Slav sentiment full-on; a terribly under-rated disc now otherwise forgotten.

We know the Chausson Pome better in its version with orchestra. It is the biggest piece here. Inscribed to Ysae, who was also the dedicatee of the Franck Sonata and the Debussy Quartet, this is given a densely substantial reading yet one that lets the light through. This is not all about evening. The Dvořk Dance was seemingly chosen for its slow pulse, placing it neatly in company with the other pieces here. The four Shostakovich micro-miniatures inject liveliness but the brevity of these fairground grotesques does not disturb the mood. After the familiar Kroll with its feel-good flightiness and pre-echoes of Ronald Binge we have Alan Ridout's novelty piece for solo violin and narrator - here that fine actor and BBC regular, Gabriel Woolf, whose charming Hispanicisms are piled on smile-high and cartoon-deep in Alan Ridout's Ferdinand - the tale of a bull. The Ravel Sonate-Posthume with liner-notes by MWI's Philip Borg-Wheeler, was the composer's first chamber work. I was surprised by how many mature fingerprints there are in this piece; not to be dismissed as juvenilia. The Elgar Sospiri ends the disc and served as a salutary lesson to me. This later work stands at the other end of the spectrum from the soupy genre pieces of the 1890s. Written in 1914 this is no indulgence in cheap salon emotion. In fact it is not far afield from Finzi's Introit in one direction and Ravel's Pavane in the other. I should have known better.

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British Violin Concertos
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [35:15]
George DYSON (1883-1964) Violin Concerto [43:14]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [41:48]
John VEALE (1922-2006) Violin Concerto [35:38]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (Veale); City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox (Dyson); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Bliss); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (Bax)
rec. 23-25 June 1991 (Bax), 2-3 November 1994 (Dyson), 29-30 November 2000 (Veale), 17-18 January 2006 (Bliss), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea; St Jude's Church, Central Square, London NW11; Blackheath Concert Halls, London
CHANDOS CHAN241-53M [155:37]

This generous, super-packed and musically valuable 2-for-1 set draws on the Chandos back catalogue: CHAN9003 and CHAN10154 (with the cello concerto) for the Bax violin concerto; CHAN9369 for the Dyson (review review); CHAN10380 for the Bliss and CHAN9910 for the Veale. Mordkovitch learnt and recorded a whole range of British repertoire including Alwyn, Stanford, Howells, Ireland, Moeran (review review), Ferguson, Carwithen and Walton.

The Bax Violin Concerto, while more prepossessing than the Cello Concerto, suffers from being diffuse. It lacks the wild, concentrated imagination of Bax's high water inspirations such as Symphonies 5 and 6 and Winter Legends, all recorded by Bryden Thomson, the conductor here. However it has its moments of grandeur and clarity. There's no competition except on Lyrita from Gertler in mono and a long-deleted Dutton from Kersey, also in mono. The performance here is not short on attack and, as for succulence, just listen to the end of the first movement. This makes way for the gentle pastel emotions of Maytime in the second. The final movement, while lacking the almost Shostakovich-style bite of Dennis Simons in a broadcast performance from 1979, certainly raises smoke and sparks.

Chandos is pretty much the home of the Dyson revival. There is no competition when it comes to the Violin Concerto. This is a work of symphonic momentum, Elgarian sweep and heavily-draped allure. It has a touch of Miaskovsky about it. It is the antithesis of the neo-classical approach to be found in the violin concertos by Holst, Finzi and RVW. The second movement is flightily skipping while the third basks in the interplay of delightfully muted colours and superb instrumental invention. The finale draws deeply on its reserves of joyously positive optimism. It's such a pity that Mordkovitch did not take this work into the concert hall. The performance and recording is a joy.

The Bliss is of a scale with the Dyson. Its only true competition is the Campoli on Decca, later Beulah. There's an echo of the famous Bruch 1 at the start and then a passionate shade from Morning Heroes passes across the horizon. Fire and fury alternate with the sinister and fairytale virtuosity of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto before rising to a joyous winged release. The finale starts sweet and slow but soon kindles to excitement. At 6.00 there's a memory of the scourging music from Miracle in the Gorbals while at 8.33 explosive propulsion and optimism meet.

The Concerto by John Veale, whose stirring Second Symphony has just appeared from Dutton Epoch, is highly inventive with writing that is jagged, melodramatic and lyrical. There is a shade of the wide-screen here and Walton and Harris similarities. Mordkovitch's dedication in learning this work is praiseworthy - as was that of Erich Gruenberg who learnt the piece in very little time for its first broadcast in the 1980s - and no allowances need to be made.

The only vaguely comparable competition is the mono Lyrita REAM disc of the violin concertos by Bax, Moeran and Benjamin and the Walton Cello Concerto. It's a different experience - being radio broadcast material - and complements this Chandos set.

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 [38:23]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129 [30:52]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Jrvi
rec. Glasgow City Hall, 16-17 October 1989
CHANDOS CHAN10864X [69:15]

This disc was extremely well received when first issued as CHAN8820. The present reissue should help it receive proper attention again. Naturally it found a place in the Chandos 30 - Milestones box issued in 2009 to celebrate the label's thirtieth anniversary. The First Violin Concerto, rather like the First Cello Concerto, always spoke more appealingly than the Second; it's just more instantly accessible without being a softer proposition. Mordkovitch and Jrvi delve into an inwardness that lies somewhere between the chill of desolation and the warmth of confiding consolation. The violin solo is distinguished by purity of note production - something more than score precision is at work here and when the brakes are well and truly off there's a bow-shredding force to be reckoned with. The soloist is placed forward but not absurdly so. It's a nicely mediated configuration. Jrvi does the savagery well too and when we come to that grim echo of the Beethoven 5 'fate motif' it is nothing short of remorseless. The finale recalls the garish neon of the Khachaturian concerto - all rasp and kinetic excitement. There is also time for the tenderness and precision of the composer's softer-edged palette. The three-movement Second Violin Concerto feels the longer of the two but in fact it times out to only 30:52. It has some parallels with the First in its communing between desolation and confiding beauty. Once again nicely judged attention is paid to dynamics and the SNO brass catch the authentically 'scratchy' sound of the vintage Soviet versions. The fact that the competition includes Mordkovitch's teacher, David Oistrakh, seems not to have caused her any misgivings; nor should it have. These are confident readings and in the most excellent sound. Mordkovitch also recorded other Russian repertoire with Chandos including the Taneyev Suite and the Prokofiev violin concertos: CHAN 10540; originally CHAN 8709. We are assured that Mordkovitch never forgot her background. “Whatever Russian music I’m playing, I still feel my roots very strongly.” This disc can be convincingly adduced in evidence of that assertion.

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44 (1877) [29:16]
Violin Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58 (1891) [41:19]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 4-7 October 1998, Blackheath Halls, London.
CHANDOS CHAN10865X [70:40]

This is a re-coupling of two elements from a sequence of three discs. Those three discs had the three numbered violin concertos by Bruch as their common core. Each was allocated a coupling: No. 1 was partnered with the Brahms Double Concerto on CHAN8867; No. 2 with Bruch's Third Symphony on CHAN9738 and No. 3 with Bruch's First Symphony on CHAN9784.

In one place this CD answers the question: What are the other two Bruch concertos like? The Second runs to about 30 minutes; much like its predecessor. Its sweetness is comparable with that of the First but it's an aspect that meets dark militaristic writing for brass. Yes, there is some impressive work for the solo violin but it will not have you swooning. The finale is vigorous and good-humoured. The Third Concerto is grand and broad of aspect. In the first movement I am reminded of the strenuous tragedy touched on in Dvořk's Seventh Symphony. The second movement is a placid and affecting twelve minute Adagio. The finale includes some remarkable double-stopping and captures the lyrical release also found in the First Concerto. These Bruch concertos should appeal to you if you like Saint-Sans' three violin concertos however they do not cast off the shackles of convention. Mordkovitch makes the most of these scores which show solid invention and rewarding melodic craft.

Bruch is well worth learning more about. If you take the bait then the place to go is Christopher Fifield's grand biographical study.

Previous reviews: David Barker and Dominy Clements

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Rob Barnett



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