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Ten Great Violinists of the Twentieth Century
Mischa Elman, Arthur Grumiaux, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Henryk Szeryng, Joseph Szigeti, Maxim Vengerov
BIDDULPH LAB 8101 [10 CDs: 748:44]

As advertised in the title, this ten CD box set compiles the efforts of some of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. Although it is a pleasure to hear every one of the performances on these discs, repertoire choices have been made by the curators that might strike violin-fanciers as eccentric. Heifetz is represented entirely by Mozart. Yehudi Menuhin is assigned an all-Paganini CD. Oistrakh and Szeryng’s discs focus on bon-bons rather than the meaty works they played so well. To be clear, this puzzling selection is not a hardship, as almost every disc features beautiful performances from each violinist. If the point of the set is to serve as an introduction to these players for the novice listener, however, the repertoire offered is occasionally misleading. The order of the set is also odd. Elman appears first, followed by Grumiaux, then Heifetz. Kreisler, the oldest of the group, appears after Heifetz. Szigeti, who was only a year younger than Elman, is placed after Menuhin, Oistrakh and Szerying, just before Maxim Vengerov. Wouldn’t chronological order organized by violinist make more sense?

In addition to the bizarre ordering, the provenance of the recordings is muddled. Although the majority of the recordings (seven of ten) were originally released by Biddulph and the box is labeled a Biddulph product, the booklet lets slip that the set is being distributed by the Alto company. The production values of this set reflect the characteristics of other releases by Alto, not reaching the high-level quality of the original Biddulph presentations. Careless proofreading abounds. For example, according to the booklet, there are two CD 3s. Almost half of the tracks contained on the Milstein disc do not appear anywhere in the booklet, a serious lapse that would mystify an inexperienced listener. Perhaps the unexpected music would be a pleasant surprise? Some of the track listings are indented with two sharing a line, lending a jumbled appearance to the page. Random text is bolded. Capitalization is not standardized. Diacritical marks are missing from composer’s names, and there are some typos. Many transcribers/arrangers are not given credit for their work. Most shameful of all, the excellent pianists Victor Yampolsky and Irina Vinogradova (Oistrakh and Vengerov’s collaborative partners, respectively) are not mentioned anywhere in the booklet. Their names appear on the physical CDs on which they appear, but this might not be seen by listeners quickly feeding the discs into a player. The contents of this set are to be treasured, but Alto can and should do much better in their presentation.

Mischa Elman’s disc contains some of his greatest Victor 78 RPM records. For me, it is the heart-rending Wieniawski “Garden Scene” from Faust that demands immediate attention. If I were to pick a single recording from Elman’s hundreds of Victor sides to best-represent to a new listener his fabled lava-like tone, it would be this brief track. Elman was clearly familiar with the earlier Victor recording of the duet featuring his friend Enrico Caruso and firecracker soprano Geraldine Farrar; many of his left hand choices mirror the portamenti offered by Caruso, and Elman’s rendition sings just as beautifully as the tenor. Another highlight is the recording of Sarasate’s Caprice Basque which sparkles and flies in a manner that would surprise listeners only familiar with his lethargic and clumsy Vanguard records from late in his life. A fervent Kol Nidrei makes a strong case for this work as a violin piece, only failing in the brisk tempo that is almost certainly a result of the time limitations of the 12” single-sided Red Seal discs. The ultra-passionate recording of the once-famous Chopin-Wilhelmj Nocturne op. 27 no. 2 helps to explain the immense popularity of the transcription with violinists of the period. As a whole, this CD is a wonderful introduction to the art of Mischa Elman.

The Arthur Grumiaux disc captures the Belgian violinist in two mainstays of his repertoire, the Mendelssohn and Brahms concertos. A prolific recording artist, he made many records for Phillips from the 1950s until his death in 1986. For those not familiar with his work, Grumiaux is an intriguing artist: graceful yet masculine, sophisticated yet passionate. Both recordings (the Mendelssohn from 1960, Brahms from 1958) have been released in various incarnations on different labels, and are considered classics by most violin lovers. The Brahms in particular is a delight; Grumiaux is not afraid to dig in and play with guts in the stormy opening, nor does he seem out of place in the gypsy-flavored finale, yet one most appreciates his sensitivity and open-heartedness in moments of Brahmsian calm. As a bonus, we have Grumiaux’s romanticized yet tasteful version of the Corelli “La Folía” Sonata, op. 5 no. 12.

The all-Mozart Jascha Heifetz disc features that violinist’s typical blend of scintillating and infuriating characteristics. When first released in 1934, this recording of the Fifth Concerto must have been a godsend for those searching for an elegant, musically-satisfying rendition of the score. The cool brilliance of Heifetz’s playing is impressive, and his crystalline tone is in many ways a perfect match for Mozart, particularly in the slow movement. His Mozart is comparatively chaste for the era, yet his trademark “Heifetz slides” can easily become distracting to the modern listener. The fast, passionate portamenti that would work well in Korngold or Strauss pull focus away from his distinctive shaping and intriguing musical ideas. The never-ending intensity of his vibrato is also hard to ignore. It should also be noted that in the two sonatas, the pianist Emanuel Bay sounds as if he was banished to another room for the session and recorded via tin can and string. There are moments in which the piano possesses the melody, the violin the accompaniment, and yet there is Heifetz, aggressively sawing away at his Alberti figuration while poor Bay fights to make Mozart’s melody heard. This is unfair to both Bay and to Mozart. One wishes that Bay or a brave recording engineer had stood up to the violinist in his never-ending quest for dominant balance. The overall effect of this CD is one of anachronism. Given that the Biddulph company released numerous Heifetz compilations in the early 1990s -- those discs encompassing repertoire that suited him much better than Mozart -- I question the inclusion of this disc in the set.

The uninitiated should seek out Fritz Kreisler’s recordings with Sir John Barbirolli of the Brahms and Beethoven concerti, but it is also very necessary for newcomers to experience his genius in the realm of the encore. The short pieces gathered here make clear in an instant Kreisler’s great humanity and personal warmth. How many modern violinists could (or would!) bestow such humanity and poise upon Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home (a.k.a. “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”)? There are many wonderful little pieces offered here, but my favorites are the Dance of the Marionettes by Felix Winternitz, Kreisler’s own arrangement of the Albéniz Malagueńa, and the Brahms Waltz in A-flat Major, arranged by David Hochstein. The Winternitz highlights Kreisler’s unique sense of rubato. He possessed an inimitable lilt which he placed in service of music which may be light, but whose charming character cannot help but bring a smile to the lips. The Malagueńa is Spain by way of Vienna, but Kreisler finds a surprisingly sultry tone and a legitimate Iberian rhythmic swing in the opening. Finally, the Brahms-Hochstein is special for extra-musical reasons. Second Lieutenant David Hochstein (1892-1918) was killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive while serving in the U.S. Expeditionary Force during World War One. Kreisler himself had served on the opposing side with the Austrian army and was wounded early in the war. His performance of this arrangement is a touching tribute to his younger colleague, who himself left behind recordings of only three pieces: this waltz, the once-popular Orientale by Cui, and Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid. This disc is a wonderful introduction to Kreisler’s art.

Yehudi Menuhin’s Paganini disc may be my favorite of the set. This recording of the uncut Paganini first concerto was hailed in its time as an instant classic, and it remains my reference recording of this work. Menuhin plays like a demon, and an operatically-inclined one at that. No other violinist makes the work’s roots in Italian opera so obvious. Menuhin never shys away from the melodrama that always hides just beneath the surface of every Paganini creation. The lyrical moments sing, while the technical fireworks sizzle. The inhuman clarity of his tone when playing high on the G-string is a shock to the ears, especially went placed side-by-side with other performances of the same piece. The complete Sauret cadenza is laid forth with affection, Menuhin taking the time to play it musically, rather than sprinting through it in order to display bristling technical challenges successfully conquered. The concerto’s disc-mates include various caprices, some with piano accompaniments by Kreisler. Menuhin makes an odd choice with the famous 24th caprice, using Leopold Auer’s embellishments and coda, yet playing it as a solo, ignoring Auer’s added piano part. Shorn of that accompaniment, the coda in particular sounds bare, and as a result, is much less effective than the famous Heifetz recording. The “Moses” variations must be singled out, with the soulful, brawny introduction that again displays Menuhin’s ability on the G-string, as well as his ability to make even artificial harmonics beautiful.

As mentioned previously, almost half of the contents of the Nathan Milstein disc do not appear in the booklet. In addition to the listed works, it includes [Tracks 11-17]:

The Seamstress – Modest Mussorgsky (arr. Milstein)
Scherzo, op. 42 no. 3 – Peter I. Tchaikovsky (arr. Efrem Zimbalist)
Berceuse (from The Firebird) – Igor Stravinsky (arr. Samuel Dushkin)
Nigun (no. 2 from Baal Shem Suite) – Ernest Bloch
Asturiana – Manuel De Falla (arr. Paul Kochanski)
Tre canti: no. 1, Affetuoso – Ildebrando Pizzetti
La campanella - Niccolň Paganini (arr. Kreisler).

The young Milstein is, in my opinion, not as interesting a violinist as he would become later in life. The 1942 performance of the Bruch is interpretively faceless; it is technically facile and musically solid, but not distinctive in any way, particularly when compared to the young Yehudi Menuhin’s recording from 1931. Recorded in the 1930s, the encores are more successful (particularly the De Falla), though even they are not comparable to later performances. For a better representation of Milstein’s art, hear his numerous concerto recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, or the live performance given at the Library of Congress in 1946 [Musicweb review here]. Although recorded only a few years after the Bruch, the frisson provided by a live audience seems to have spurred him to greater levels of engagement.

The title of David Oistrakh’s disc is “My Encores,” but the most interesting piece contained within is anything but an encore. Eugčne Ysa˙e’s Extase is nearly ten minutes long, and is the fourth of a series of Počmes for violin and orchestra (it is recorded here in its violin and piano incarnation). It follows in the vein of the better-known Počme of Ernest Chausson: broody introduction, growing passion, an overwhelming, almost hysterical climax, then a gradual descent to serenity. Oistrakh and his pianist Victor Yampolsky give a stunning performance, both men summoning fantastic intensity. Their wide-ranging tone colors and well-planned dynamic structure make much more of the piece than it perhaps deserves. If all violinists could play the work this way, it would doubtless find a place in the canon. Other highlights include a dashing performance of the Tchaikovsky Valse-Scherzo op. 34 and a folksy, almost savage Bartók Romanian Folk Dances. It is worth noting that this is the first recording in the set that offers sonic parity to the pianist. Yampolsky was a serious artist, and it’s good to hear his contributions given the same aural detail afforded to Oistrakh.

Henryk Szeryng is one of the three violinists (Oistrakh, Szerying, Grumiaux) whose entry was not previously released by Biddulph. This encores disc is a mash-up of several RCA LPs originally released ca. 1959 to 1962. It was previously released as a single CD by Alto. [Jonathan Woolf’s positive review can be found here.] I must admit that I have never enjoyed Szeryng’s playing in this sort of music. The musical Olympian who was capable of plumbing the depths of the Brahms concerto seems completely at a loss when confronted with the charm and wit of a Kreisler Viennese dance. Addressing Szeryng’s Kreisler in particular; there is no swing to the rhythm, no smile in the sound. In fact, the tone is edgy in a manner that is foreign to the style. It is entirely possible to play this music with sentiment and panache without aping its one-of-a-kind creator (hear Itzhak Perlman’s beautiful Kreisler discs made for EMI in the 1970s, for example), so Szerying’s po-faced presentation is all the more puzzling. The Vitali Chaconne is heavy-handed and sluggish, lacking the dramatic tension and masculine power of the 1950 Heifetz recording with organ. The Tartini “Devil’s Trill” is remarkable for its cleanliness, but comes across as meticulous rather than demonic. Szeryng’s pianist Charles Reiner doesn’t help matters, his accompaniments coming across as uniformly earthbound. For more successful collaborative work in this sort of music, find any disc with Samuel Sanders on the piano bench.

Joseph Szigeti is represented by a mixed disc made up mostly of short encore pieces. This may be the minority report, but I greatly prefer Szigeti’s later recording of the Brahms third sonata with Mieczyslaw Horszowski to the version published here with Egon Petri. Although his vibrato had greatly slowed in the interim, the older Szigeti plays with more insight, and in the slow movement, much more color and warmth. The 1937 Szigeti/Petri version is driven, almost frantic, and although considered a benchmark recording by many, it does not seem at all Brahmsian to me, lacking any sense of repose or tenderness. Peter Warlock’s “Capriol” Suite works very well on the violin, sounding even more neo-Renaissance-ian than the original string orchestra version; Szigeti plays his own arrangement with great zest. The Loeffler arrangement of the Chabrier Scherzo-Valse zips along, Szigeti managing to summon some surprising Gallic flavor in his light and airy approach. The Hubay which ends the disc is one of Szigeti’s greatest recordings. It serves as a reminder that Szigeti at one time possessed a masterful technique, with an accurate and singing left hand married to a flexible bow arm that could match any challenge placed before it. It is odd to hear the sober violinist best-remembered for his recordings of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms tearing up the violin in this Gypsy showpiece, but it makes me wish that he had recorded more of this sort of repertoire in his youth.

The final disc was Maxim Vengerov’s first-ever solo recording. Partnered by the first-rate Irina Vinogradova, Vengerov takes a tour of virtuosic repertoire from the Schubert Fantasie D. 934 to Franz Waxman’s re-imagining of Bizet’s Carmen. The Schubert is the heftiest piece on the album, and as always, is a tough interpretive nut to crack. Vengerov plays with imagination and great verve, but I find myself more often listening to Vinogradova, who offers interesting shape in her solos, provides appropriate support, and is capable of truly dynamic fingerwork. The violinist is on firmer ground in the Ernst “Variations on the Last Rose of Summer,” managing the nightmarish figurations with ease and refinement. The Tchaikovsky Valse-Scherzo suffers in comparison to Oistrakh, who plays with masculine energy and great wit. The remainder of the disc is excellent, but erases no memories of violinists like Zino Francescatti or Heifetz in pieces like the Ravel Tzigane or Waxman Carmen potpourri.

The low price point of this set and the mostly excellent quality of the contents make this compilation a real bargain. One only wishes that Alto had taken more care with the product and spent more time on the booklet.

Richard Masters

CD 1: Mischa Elman – Victor Recordings, 1917-1919 [77:28]
(Phillip Gordon*, Josef Bonime, pianists)

Francis THOMÉ
Simple Aveu*
Valse Caprice*
František DRDLA
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Turkish March (from The Ruins of Athens, arr. Leopold Auer)
Tango (arr. Mischa Elman)
Hymn to the Sun (arr. Sam Franko)
Frédéric CHOPIN
Nocturne no. 8 in D flat major, op. 27 no. 2 (arr. August Wilhelmj)
Johann N. HUMMEL
Waltz in A
Riccardo DRIGO
Les Millions d'Arlequin - Serenade
None but the lonely heart, op. 6 no. 6
Caprice Basque, op. 24
Kol Nidrei, op. 47
Edvard GRIEG
Lyric Pieces op. 54: no. 4 – Nocturne (arr. Elman)
Song without Words, op. 67 no. 6 in E major 'Lullaby' (arr. Elman)
The Dew is Sparkling, op. 72 no. 2 (arr. Elman)
Scotch Pastorale, Concert Miniature op. 130 no. 2
Album for the Young, op. 39: Melodie antique francaise
Meditation (from Thaďs, arr. Marsick)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV1068: Air (arr. August Wilhelmj)
Antonin DVOŘÁK
Humoresque in G flat major, Op. 101 No. 7 (arr. Elman)
Fantaisie brillante on themes from Gounod's Faust, Op. 20: Garden Scene
Träumerei (from Kinderszenen, Op. 15, arr. Ferdinand Hüllweck)
Six airs de danse dans le style ancien: Passepied (arr. Elman)

CD 2: Arthur Grumiaux [76:27]

Violin Concerto in E Minor,op. 64
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Johannes BRAHMS
Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 77
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Eduard van Beinum (conductor)
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Violin Sonata op. 5 no. 12, “La Folia”
Ricardo Castagnone (pianist)

CD 3: Jascha Heifetz [65:55]

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Violin Concerto no. 5, K. 219 “Turkish”
London Symphony Orchestra
John Barbirolli (conductor)
Sonata no. 26 in B-flat Major, K. 378
Sonata no. 32 in B-flat Major, K. 454
Emanuel Bay (pianist)

CD 4: Fritz Kreisler [79:27]

Carl Lamson (pianist)
Franz Rupp (pianist)*

Rudolf FRIML
Indian Love Call (from Rose-Marie, arr. Kreisler)
Andantino in D-flat Major, op. 83 no. 2, “Moonlight and Roses”
Romantic Serenade
Humoresque, op. 10 no. 2
“Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett” (Serenade from Frasquita, arr. Kreisler)
Rudolf FRIML
Dance of the Maidens
Old German Shepherd’s Madrigal
Malagueńa (no. 3 from Espańa, op. 165, arr. Kreisler)
Andante rubato (from Ruralia Hungarica, op. 32c, arr. Kreisler)
František DRDLA
Meditation (from Thaďs, arr. Marsick)
Stephen FOSTER
Old Folks at Home (arr. Kreisler)
Danse Espagnole (from La vida breve, arr. Kreisler)
Tango (no. 2 from Espańa, op. 165, arr. Kreisler)
Rondino on a theme of Beethoven
Gavotte, Partita no. 3 for solo violin in E Major BWV1006 (arr. Kreisler)
Johannes BRAHMS
Waltz in A-flat Major, op. 39 no. 15 (arr. David Hochstein)
Antonin DVOŘÁK
Humoresque in G-flat Major, op. 101 no. 7 (arr. Kreisler)
Andante Cantabile (from String Quartet no. 1 in D, op. 11, arr. Kreisler)*
Drei Wälzer (Liebesfreud - Liebesleid - Schön Rosmarin)*
Caprice Viennois, Op. 2*
Londonderry Air (arr. Kreisler)*

CD 5: Yehudi Menuhin [76:46]

Niccolň PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Marcel Gazelle (pianist)*
Ferguson Webster (pianist)**

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6
Paris Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Monteux (conductor)
Caprice op. 1 no. 9 in E major 'The Hunt'
Caprice op. 1 no. 13 in B flat major (arr. Fritz Kreisler)*
Caprice op. 1 no. 20 in D major (arr. Fritz Kreisler)*
Caprice op. 1 no. 23 in E-flat major
Caprice op. 1 no. 24 in A minor (arr. Leopold Auer)
Introduction & Variations on 'Dal tuo stellato soglio' from Rossini's Mosé in Egitto**
Introduction & Variations on 'Nel cor piů non mi sento' by Paisiello

CD 6: Nathan Milstein [77:22]

Concerto no. 1 in G Minor, op. 26
Philharmonic-Symphony of New York
John Barbirolli (conductor)

Frédéric CHOPIN
Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, op. post. (arr. Milstein)
Consolation no. 3 in D-flat Major, S. 172 (arr. Milstein)
Polonaise brillante no. 1 in D Major, op. 4
Romance, from Concerto no. 2 in D Minor, op. 22
Andantino (no. 2 from Aus der Heimat)
Il pleut dans la ville, op. 11 no. 3 (arr. Milstein)
The Seamstress (arr. Milstein)
Scherzo op. 42 no. 3 (arr. Efrem Zimbalist)
Berceuse (from The Firebird, arr. Samuel Dushkin)
Ernest BLOCH
Nigun (no. 2 from Baal Shem Suite)
Asturianas (from Siete canciones populares Espańolas, arr. Paul Kochanski)
Ildebrando PIZZETTI
Affetuoso (no. 1 from Tre Canti)
Rondo ŕ la clochette (from Concerto no. 2 in B Minor, op. 7, arr. Kreisler)

Leopold Mittman (pianist)

CD 7: David Oistrakh [75:10]
Victor Yampolsky (pianist)

Clair de lune (from Suite Bergamasque)
Jota (from Siete canciones populares Espańolas)
Eugčne YSAŸE
Extase, op. 21 (Počme no. 4)
Valse Scherzo in C Major, op. 34
Josef SUK
Love Song, op. 7 no. 1
Three Hungarian Folk Dances
Légende in G Minor, op. 17
Aleksandr ZARZYCKI
Mazurka in G Major, op. 26
Romanian Folk Dances (arr. Zoltán Székely)
La fontaine d’Arethuse (from Mythes, op. 30)
Song (from Bulgarian Suite, op. 21)
March (from The Love for Three Oranges, arr. Heifetz)
Vocalise, op. 34 no. 14 (arr. Mikhail Press)
Dance in B-flat Major

CD 8: Henryk Szerying [69:18]
Charles Reiner (pianist)

Chaconne (arr. Léopold Charlier)
Giuseppe TARTINI
Sonata in G Minor, “The Devil’s Trill” (arr. Kreisler)
Variations on a theme of Corelli (arr. Zino Francescatti)
Christoph Willibald GLUCK
Dance of the Blessed Spirits (from Orfeo e Euridice, arr. Kreisler)
Caprice viennois
Allegretto in the style of Boccherini
Schön Rosmarin
The Prophet Bird (from Waldszenen, op. 82, arr. Jascha Heifetz)
Danza de la Gitana (arr. Heifetz)
Preludium and Allegro
Tambourin Chinois
Scherzo-Tarantella, op. 16

CD 9: Joseph Szigeti [77:55]
Nikita Magaloff (pianist)
Egon Petri (pianist)*
Béla Bartók (pianist)**

Johannes BRAHMS
Sonata no. 3 in D Minor, op. 108*
Edward ELGAR
Pavane and Mattachins (from Capriol Suite, arr. Joseph Szigeti)
Sigurd LIE
Snow (arr. Szigeti)
Scherzo-Valse (arr. Charles Martin Loeffler)
Maurice RAVEL
Pičce en forme de Habanera (arr. Georges Catherine)
Danse espagnole (from La vida breve, arr. Kreisler)
The Flight of the Bumblebee (from The Tale of Tsar Sultan, arr. Arthur Hartmann)
Alexander SCRIABIN
Etude in Thirds, op. 8 no. 10 (arr. Szigeti)
Gavotte, from Symphony no. 1 in C Major, op. 25 “Classical” (arr. David J. Grunes)
Pastorale (arr. Samuel Dushkin)
Danse Russe (from Petrouchka, arr. Dushkin)
La fontaine d’Arethuse (from Mythes, op. 30)
Scene from Czardas no. 3, “Maros vize”
Romanian Folk Dances (arr. Székely)**
Hungarian Folk Tunes**

CD 10: Maxim Vengerov [72:56]
Irina Vinogradova (pianist)
Fantasie in C Major, D. 934
Valse-Scherzo in C Major, op. 34
Heinrich W. ERNST
Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer”
Eugčne YSAŸE
Sonata in D Minor, op. 27 no. 3 “Ballade”
Maurice RAVEL
Prélude ŕ l'aprčs-midi d'un faune (arr. Heifetz)
Carmen Fantasy

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