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Although the Russian born violinist Tossy Spivakovsky set down a reasonable number of studio recordings (one source claims 53) not much has been transferred to CD. He will best be remembered for his 1950’s recordings for Everest of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Violin Concertos (review), which have done the rounds in several incarnations. There’s also a collection of encore pieces on the now defunct Pearl label (review), which are well worth seeking out on the second-hand market. This makes this 4-CD set of live recordings, taped between 1943 and 1962, from the Canadian record label Doremi, all the more welcome. Jacob Harnoy, the director of this Toronto-based enterprise, together with Miklos Cseke, came into possession of some old reel-to-reel tapes, found in Westport, Connecticut at the home of the violinist after his death. Though some had deteriorated, including a concert performance of the Sessions Violin Concerto with the NYPO under Leonard Bernstein, many were found to be in a good state of health. They have been digitally restored and remastered in this valuable recorded collection.
Spivakovsky was born in Odessa in 1906. His family relocated to Berlin when he was very young, and he took up violin studies with Arrigo Serato and later with Willy Hess at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. At 18 he was talent spotted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and became the youngest concertmaster ever of the Berlin Philharmonic. Two years later he left to pursue a solo career in Europe. When the Nazis rose to power he settled in Australia for a while. In 1940, now married and with a young daughter, he moved to the USA, becoming concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodziński for a period. For the next four decades he lived the life of a travelling virtuoso. From 1974-1989 he taught at the Juilliard in New York. He died in 1998, aged 91.
Noted for his highly individual and idiosyncratic approach to violin playing, it is impossible to categorize him as belonging to any particular school of fiddle playing. He had a penchant for unusual fingerings, and his unconventional bowing, which seemed to work for him, was characterized by an unorthodox bow hold, where it was gripped above the frog. This facilitated smoothness of tone and incisiveness of attack, but limited his tonal palette somewhat, a problem further compounded by an incessantly fast vibrato. Another feature of his playing was his employment of sensuous slides and position changes.
The set opens with Spivakovsky giving a spoken introduction prior to a performance of the Bach Chaconne in Stockholm, January 1969. He had his own approach to solo Bach, using a curved VEGA BACH bow, which he had acquired from Knud Vestergaard of Denmark. This enabled him to play three and four note chords in an unbroken manner, a method that never really caught on. He obviously thought that the audience needed some explanation. It’s a matter of personal taste and I, for one, prefer arpeggiated chords rather than unbroken ones.
The main bulk of the set is devoted to standard core repertoire. Comparing the live and studio recordings of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, it’s hardly surprising that they’re interpretively similar as they both date from 1960. In fact, the live concert performance could almost have been a dry run for the recording, albeit with a different orchestra and conductor. Apart from the year I haven’t been able to find a precise date when the work was taken into the studio. I found the Prokofiev Second Concerto disappointing, let down by a plodding and pedestrian slow movement. It’s difficult to apportion blame, but Thomas Shippers’ direction is lacklustre, which doesn’t help matters. The exquisite legato line one finds in Heifetz’s two recordings is a far cry from what one hears here.
The Spivakovsky/Paray pairing works well in the Mendelssohn Concerto, with the music vividly brought to life. The slow movement basks in an ardent glow, with portamentos tastefully applied, and the finale is sprightly and invigorated, without sounding rushed. The opening movement of the Beethoven Concerto is noble in stature, and Spivakovsky plays with patrician elegance. I didn’t recognize the cadenza, and it isn’t credited. Maybe it’s his own. The slow movement is elegantly etched, whilst in the third movement the bowing has real bite. The 1961 performance of the Brahms Concerto with Krips and the NYPO is big-boned and muscular. The violinist uses the Joachim cadenza in the first movement. The oboe solo in the slow movement is decently profiled in the balance, and the finale has ample energy and gusto.
On October 14 1943, Spivakovsky gave the first American performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodziński. The occasion was broadcast nationwide, and the performance is included here, though the sound quality is murky and dim. It is preceded by some reflections on the performance the violinist gave in 1969. Apparently, this was the first of three performances given 14, 15 and 17 of October. The composer attended both the rehearsals and concerts and was by all accounts impressed by the violinist’s interpretation. The opening movement is intensely rhapsodic, followed by a lyrically expressive slow movement, and capped by an animated finale.
Off the beaten track, we are treated to two twentieth century concertos. Frank Martin’s Violin Concerto, which dates from 1951, is a work of lyrical beauty, and listening to it again I found it difficult to understand its neglect. There are couple of recordings by Wolfgang Schneiderhan that I am familiar with but this one is equally as fine. Spivakovsky’s instinctive phrasing of the long soaring lines is breathtaking, and the first movement cadenza is dispatched with technical assuredness and unruffled ease. Robert La Marchina provides rhythmically engaging support. The original tape condition for this work is good and allows the colourful orchestration to emerge with clarity. The violin is nicely profiled in the balance. In fact, this performance is the highlight of the set for me. I’m pleased that we have a recording of William Schuman's 1947 Violin Concerto, another twentieth century concerto I am very fond of. It’s a very approachable work, high on emotion and extremely dramatic, and this exciting performance certainly won't disappoint. Lukas Foss directs the Buffalo Philharmonic in a highly charged, action-packed reading. Throughout, Spivakovsky is acutely sensitive to the ever-shifting landscape.
These tapes, apart from the dimly lit Bartók, are in good shape for their vintage and all capture the violinist at the height of his powers. Announcements and applause have been retained. Doremi have gone to town on the 15-page booklet. Apart from an array of beautifully reproduced photographs, there are some interesting and informative notes by Rose Forest which provide illuminating background. This highly desirable release constitutes a valuable addition to the Spivakovsky discography.
Contents Johann Sebastian BACH(1685-1750)
Chaconne for Violin Solo from Partita No. 2, BWV 1004
Live Broadcast, played with VEGA BACH bow, Swedish Radio, Stockholm, January 26, 1969 Violin Concertos - Live performances 1943-66
Ludwig v. BEETHOVEN (1770-1828) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Amerigo Marino December 21, 1963 Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Josef Krips, December 7, 1961 Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Paray, November 17, 1956 Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2, SZ. 112
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Artur Rodzinski, October 14, 1943 Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers, November 19 1959 Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert La Marchina, December 19, 1963 Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Nils Grevillius, February 8, 1960 William SCHUMANN(1910-1992)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/Lukas Foss, January 23, 1966