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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 [39:44]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole, Op.21 [25:07]
Christian Ferras (violin)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. live, radio broadcast, Victoria Hall, Geneva,
12 March 1958 (Brahms); 6 April 1960 (Lalo)

Johannes BRAHMS
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 [39:55]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Viola Concerto Sz 120, BB128 [21:23]*
Christian Ferras (violin)
Joseph de Pasquale (viola)*
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. live, radio broadcast, Boston Symphony Hall, USA, 6 March 1959 (Brahms); 30 December 1960 (Bartók)

There are two commercial recordings featuring Christian Ferras in the Brahms Violin Concerto. The most famous is the 1964 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. Lesser known is a version with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carl Schuricht, set down in mono ten years earlier, in 1954. The latter I prefer for its greater warmth and spontaneity. Live airings have surfaced on Archipel and INA but, as far as I am aware, this is the first time these two performances have appeared on CD. As such, they make welcome additions to the violinist’s discography.

Christian Ferras was born in Le Touquet, France in 1933. Having initial violin tuition from his father, he entered the Nice Conservatoire aged eight and from there progressed to the Paris Conservatoire in 1944, where he won prizes for violin and chamber music. Georges Enesco was his mentor for a time. His early career was spent travelling the world and giving concerts. His art represents the very best attributes of the Franco-Belgian School with its emphasis on tone, timbre and colour. His life was to end tragically. Battling alcoholism and depression from the mid-sixties onwards, his career suffered as a result. He did, however, accept a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire in 1975, and made a comeback to concert-giving in the early part of 1982. This rehabilitation was only short-lived. Tragically, on 14 September 1982 he took his own life at the age of 49.

The earliest of the two live Brahms inscriptions dates from March 1958, with Ernest Ansermet directing the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Ansermet founded the orchestra in 1918 and remained at the helm for 49 years until 1967. He sets a very slow tempo at the beginning of the concerto, and my immediate reaction was that this was going to be heavy weather. Then, for some strange reason, with the fortissimo chord at bar 17 he suddenly ups the pace. The timing of the first movements of both performances is around 22:30. I must say that I prefer the 1959 concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch. Not only is it in better sound, with less bronchial participation from the audience but Munch is a more inspirational conductor. The Boston players seem more assured and engaged, their rhythmic vitality securing more favourable results. Ferras’ technical command, eloquent phrasing and pristine intonation are spectacular, qualities that were to impress Karajan later. In both performances the violinist plays the Kreisler cadenza.

The violinist made one commercial recording of the Lalo Symphonie espagnole for HMV in 1958 with the Philharmonia and Walter Süsskind. This live traversal from April 1960 is once again partnered by Ansermet and the OSR. In both cases the violinist opts for the four movement version. Taking a lead from an established practice, Ferras omits the Intermezzo. Quite why this central movement has been omitted as late as 1960 puzzles me, as it’s delightful, and includes some of the composer’s most compelling music in terms of virtuosity and lyricism. Henry Merckel and Yehudi Menuhin restored this movement in their early recordings of the work in 1932 and 1933 respectively, and set a trend which thankfully went some way towards redressing the balance. The performance has a true Spanish flavour, with Ferras’ broad tonal palette and seductive portamenti adding to the allure. There are some stunning bow effects and deft glissandi, all contributing to the potency of the reading. The work is capped with a sparkling finale.

The American violist Joseph de Pasquale (1919-2015) is the soloist in Bartók’s Viola Concerto, recorded live in Boston in December 1960. He was principal violist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1947 until 1964. The Concerto was left unfinished at the time of the composer’s death and completed by Tibor Serly at the request of the Bartók family. De Pasquale’s communicative playing boasts a sumptuous, rich burnished tone, and formidable technique. Munch is a sympathetic collaborator, sensitive to the score’s subtle nuances. The performance is well recorded and sounds pretty fine for its age.

The couplings will be of prime consideration for potential purchasers. For me the Brahms and Bartók pairing, with its superlative solo playing and better sound, wins hands down.

Stephen Greenbank



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