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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto Op.15 [29.43]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36 [38.10]
Stanislaw MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
The Haunted Manor: Mazurka from Act IV [5.10]
Wanda Wilkomirska (violin), Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra / Witold Rowicki
rec. live, 7 April 1967, Royal Festival Hall, London

Wanda Wilkomirska recorded the Szymanowski First Concerto in January 1961 and it was that recording and the subsequent tours she made with it, the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Witold Rowicki, that launched her into international fame. I heard her play it myself in 1963 at the Festival Hall with these same forces. That fine old recording is not in the current catalogue but with effort I am sure it can still be found. For this concert, four years later, she brought another great 20th century piece, the Britten Violin Concerto. Hearing her clean, accurate and extraordinarily impassioned playing again is a real thrill and the orchestra accompany quite beautifully. They are particularly impressive in the great Passacaglia with which the work ends. Their climaxes are captured clearly and naturally along with the delicate Brittenesque percussion. It is no wonder that the audience at the RFH are aroused to such applause at the end. It is one of the most exciting live concerto recordings I have heard - though it is afflicted with authentic 1960's period coughing. When this CD was issued quite recently it was awarded the prestigious German Record Critics’ Award (Quarterly Critics’ Choice for Q4 2012 in the Historical Recordings category), an achievement which is prominently displayed on the CD jewel case as well as the Orchestral Concert CDs website. It is not at all surprising that it was praised not only for this performance but for the very good and realistic recording quality. One really does have to double take at the recording date when listening. The majors were achieving as much in the studios with multiple microphones during the 1960s but to manage it under live conditions with two microphones at a public concert, and in stereo, is quite something. It is very satisfying to round off a review of a large pile of these CDs with something as good as this.

The remainder of the concert was the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. What prefaced the Britten I don't know but it certainly is not in this series of CDs. The Tchaikovsky is treated to a performance which can best be described as fearless. It is even faster than Mravinsky and comes over as very exciting but slightly wayward in a manner that reminded me of Constantin Silvestri, another fine and individual Tchaikovsky conductor. By the end it is as much as one can do not to leap to one's feet and cheer along with the audience. On this occasion they were treated to an encore, the splendid Mazurka from Act 4 of Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor, a favoured encore item for the Warsaw Orchestra in those days and possibly the only piece we ever heard from this composer (now fortunately a little better known).

The recording of the Moniuszko is similar to the Britten in clarity and dynamic range. Oddly this does not apply to the Tchaikovsky which takes nearly four minutes to settle to a consistent level and indeed has two or three tiny but noticeable glitches in the process. Since I know from Geoffrey Terry, the recording engineer, that he never altered levels during recording, this must be down to slight tape damage on tapes more than 50 years old, hardly a surprise. From that point it is very satisfactory but a touch historic, not a comment one could possible apply to the Britten. Nevertheless, what we have here is a fascinating disc of a very fine concert by one of Europe's great orchestras, conducted by one of the finest directors they ever had. And then there is Wilkomirska, whose contribution is quite simply peerless. This one you have to buy and, if an excuse is needed, buy it as an act of remembrance, because this great musician died aged 89 just a few months ago on 1 May 2018.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf ~ Stephen Greenbank

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