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Legendary Concertmasters of the Berlin Philharmonic
Hugo Kolberg (violin),
Michel Schwalbé (violin)
rec. 1952-1965
MELOCLASSIC MC2039 [78:01 + 73:05]

This fascinating 2-disc set spotlights two former concertmasters of the Berlin Philharmonic, who can be heard in their solo ventures into concerto, sonata and short piece performances. Another thing they share in common is that they both originate from Warsaw, Hugo Kolberg being born there in 1898 and and Michel Schwalbé in 1919.

Schwalbé is certainly the better known of the two. After initial training at the Academy of Music in Warsaw, he furthered his studies at the Paris Conservatoire with Jules Boucherit and George Enescu. The inspirational guidance he reaped from the latter remained in his memory for the rest of his life, being recalled frequently with fondest memory. Boucherit's schooling laid the foundations of his magnificent technique. After several years failing to launch a solo career he took up a post as concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1957, and stayed with them until 1986. He died in Berlin in 2012.

Hugo Kolberg was a pupil of Henri Marteau and was later mentored by Bronislav Huberman. He served his time as an orchestral player in the 1920s playing under such conductors as Richard Strauss, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and William Steinberg. He joined the Berlin Philharmonic as a concertmaster in 1934, simultaneously forging a solo career and travelling the length and breadth of Europe. Married to a Jew, he relocated to the States in 1939 and worked in several concertmaster roles in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York. He assumed his former position in Berlin in 1958 and retired in 1963, returning to the States, where he died in 1979.

Strangely, Louis Spohr's Violin Concerto No.9 has never had the popularity of its predecessor, No.8. This 1958 performance with Carl Schuricht and the Sinfonie-Orchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks is, for me at least, the highlight of the set. Following an opening movement, where melancholy if fused with a wealth of melodiousness, the slow movement's tender lyricism is interspersed with piquant decorative ornamentation. The Rondo is cheery and optimistic and the double stops and athletic leaps are certainly no mean feat, but Kolberg takes all in his stride with great aplomb. There's a live recording of the Spohr Concerto on the Arbiter label performed by Erica Morini which was my introduction to this delightful work and which I would enthusiastically recommend. 

The short pieces with piano were taped in a single session in 1956, and here Kolberg is partnered by Hubert Giesen. The exception is Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice for solo violin, performed with brilliance of attack and pristine intonation. Saint-Saëns' gift for melody flows generously in the Havanaise. Kolberg renders it with élan and technical polish, making light of the hair-raising difficulties encountered along the way. Bloch’s Nigun has potent intensity and is dramatically nuanced.

Michel Schwalbé’s impressive technique combined the qualities of both the Russian and the Franco-Belgian schools. What did strike me is that he's munificent with his portamentos, which are very much in the style of Heifetz. He also commands a more varied tonal palette than Kolberg.  The well-projected account of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No.3 in B minor, Op.61 benefits from the unerring, sympathetic support of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. The dazzling late-Romanticism, wealth of melodic invention and impressionistic subtlety has ensured the concerto's popularity over time. The gentle slow movement is a rocking barcarolle exquisitely done, with some lovely woodwind backing. The work is capped off with an arresting finale. I wasn't quite as enamoured with the Glazounov Concerto in a performance dating from 1962. Schwalbé is too liberally lavish with his slides, and the general effect is an overly-romaticized account. I kept wishing he'd take a step back occasionally and let the music speak for itself. In Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole Schwalbé, like so many before him, omits the intermezzo. Thankfully Henry Merckel and Yehudi Menuhin both restored this movement in their early recordings of the work in 1932 and 1933 respectively. This practice doesn’t seem to have fully filtered through even as late as 1964 when this performance was aired. Nevertheless, the reading fully captures the work’s distinctive Iberian flavour, and the soloist is fully inside the music. The suave contoured lines of the second movement Scherzando are luscious and the fireworks of the finale sparkle. 

In the 1959 broadcast of the Debussy Sonata, the violinist is paired with pianist Walter Kamper, in what was the composer's last major work. The performance captures the music's steadily-shifting moods, vibrant rhythms and changing colours. Of the short pieces, there's a captivating account of Wieniawski's Légende Op.17. The Pugnani Largo espressivo is a relative rarity that was recorded by Enescu. Comparing the two side by side Enescu wins hands down for his more ardent and glowing account.

This fulsomely annotated release, in superb transfers will appeal enormously to violin mavens the world over.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

SPOHR: Violin Concerto No.9 in D Minor, Op.55
Hugo Kolberg (violin)
Sinfonie-Orchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks/Carl Schuricht
rec. 11 April 1958, Stuttgart · Villa Berg, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
SUK: Un poco triste, Op.17, No.3
SUK: Burleska, Op.17, No.4
KREISLER: Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice, Op.6
SAINT-SAËNS: Havanaise in E Major, Op.83
BLOCH: Nigun No.2 from Baal Shem
Hugo Kolberg (violin): Hubert Giesen (piano)
rec. 6 December 1956, Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Radio Studio recording
SAINT-SAËNS: Violin Concerto No.3 in B Minor, Op.61
Michel Schwalbé (violin)
Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
rec. 20 October 1965, Hannover, Großer Sendesaal, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Live Recording
GLAZOUNOV: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op.82
Michel Schwalbé (violin)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Mario Rossi
rec. 19 February 1962, Köln, Großer Sendesaal, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Radio Studio recording
LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op.21
Michel Schwalbé (violin)
Sinfonieorchester des Saarländischen Rundfunks/Rudolf Michl
rec. 23 May 1964, Saarbrücken, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
PUGNANI: Largo espressivo
DEBUSSY/HARTMANN: La fille aux cheveux de lin
WIENIAWSKI: Légende, Op.17
Michel Schwalbé (violin): Kurt Herrlinger (piano)
rec.11 October 1952, Köln, Studio Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor, L.148
Michel Schwalbé (violin): Walter Kamper (piano)
rec. 10 December 1959, Berlin, Kleiner Sendesaal, Sender Freies Berlin, Radio Studio Recording

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