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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 (1717–23) [15:16]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
L'Estro Armonico - Concertos Op. 3: No. 6 RV356 in A minor for violin and strings (1711) [9:04]
Violin Sonata in A major RV31 [7:06]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in B flat major, RV47 arr. as Cello Concerto by Vincent d’Indy [13:28]
Cello Sonata No. 5 in E minor, RV40 arr. as Cello Concerto by Vincent d’Indy [11:00]
Joseph Bernstein (violin)
Robert Starer (piano)
Leo Rostal (cello)
Concert Hall String Orchestra
rec. 1949 (cello works) and 1950 (violin works)
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1569 [55:58]

From the capacious vaults of Concert Hall LPs comes a Baroque programme that may well seem superfluous. Bach and Vivaldi; the A minor Concerto of the former and a raft of the latter, largely in non-original form. And from 1949-50 too. Where can the interest possibly lie?

The soloists’ names, Bernstein and Rostal, remind me of that old Tommy Cooper joke: ‘I inherited a painting and a violin which turned out to be a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately, Rembrandt made lousy violins and Stradivarius was a terrible painter.’ The Bernstein in question is Joseph, not Leonard, and the Rostal is Leo, not Max. However, they are interesting figures in their own right.

Bernstein (1914-1976) was a pupil of Rosé, Flesch and Enescu and was later to forge a successful orchestral career, first as concertmaster of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, then after the war in America where he was the long-serving and admired assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. His recordings here date from 1950. The Bach gets one of those miserably dry and constricted Concert Hall studio recordings and is really only bearable for the soloist, who, presumably self-directing the clod-hopping band, essays some highly effective slides and plays with style. He evinces a fine array of expressive gestures, none overdone, and if the orchestra and recording had been on a more efficient level, this would be more than the curio that it is.

Perhaps because of the nature of the orchestration – the Concert Hall String Orchestra is a small-sounding ensemble with string tendrils poking out - or because of the less familiar repertory, the Concerto from L’Estro Armonico goes better. There’s still some Old School jog-trotting but the slow movement is sensitively shaped. For the Sonata in A major, RV31 Bernstein is teamed with Robert Starer, best known for his portfolio of compositions written in America. He shared a certain background with Bernstein. He was a decade younger but had also studied in Vienna, where he was born, went to Palestine shortly after Bernstein, and following war service also went to America where he flourished. An accomplished pianist, he isn’t overburdened by the Vivaldi which allows Bernstein to reveal, in some dramatic flourishes, just how much colour and full tone he could both extract and maintain from a work of this kind.

The rest of the disc is given over to cellist Leo Rostal (1901-1983) who was, in fact, the brother of the more famous Max. Originally intended to study dentistry, he took sporadic lessons from Becker and Földsey. In turn he briefly taught Anita Lasker-Wallfisch in Berlin but as a young man in Vienna had moved in the circles of such as Erica Morni, Siegmund and Emanuel Feuermann, and Rudolf Serkin. He played with Marek Weber’s popular band but hit a more classical route via the Mayer-Mahr trio. He emigrated to America before the war and was a long-time cellist in the NBC Orchestra (1937-54) and then with the Symphony of the Air. Snippets of his playing have survived but these two Vivaldi concertos are amongst his most large-scale recordings, made c.1949.

They are hyphenated examples, originally sonatas but orchestrated by Vincent d’Indy to become concerto vehicles. The playing is on a par with the Bernstein recording of the Vivaldi, so significantly better than the Bach, thankfully. The two works are communicative and attractive examples, though not quite evincing the same level of instrumental subtlety as Bernstein. Rostal is a warm-toned player – warmer in fact than his brother, who was an acerbic tonalist – but his sound is somewhat unrelieved and his vibrato rather one-purpose. His phrasing however is thoughtful, and one can easily hear why he was such a fine and respected orchestral and chamber cellist.

There are no notes, as is almost always the case with Forgotten Records, though they provide some internet links. This is a worthwhile, specialist restoration with a transfer that has done well with the original discs.

Jonathan Woolf



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