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Christian Ferras (violin)
Concert Tours in Germany 1954–1961
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 61 [43:59]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35 [33:27]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 [39:58]
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No 1 in D major, Op 19 [21:39]
Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart/Hans Müller-Kray
NDR-Sinfonieorchester/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
HR-Sinfonieorchester/Dean Dixon
Rec. 22 March 1954, Stuttgart (Beethoven), 25 March 1957, Stuttgart (Tchaikovsky), 9 February 1959, Hamburg (Brahms)10 March, 1961, Frankfurt (Prokofiev)
MELOCLASSIC MC2042 [77:26 + 61:37]

Pressed to choose the three greatest violinists of the last century I would come up with David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan – and Christian Ferras. Of these three, Christian Ferras is the most complex, the most mercurial and the one most likely to bring a listener to tears. But he is also the most vulnerable, unstable and tragic of the three – although all three died well before they should have (Ferras at 49, Kogan at 58 and Oistrakh at 66).

There are some concertos violinists become indelibly associated with. For Oistrakh it is probably Shostakovich’s First, for Kogan the Beethoven and for Ferras the Sibelius. There is no performance of the Sibelius concerto on this two-disc set from Melo, but the work completely encapsulates what is so miraculous about this violinist, what makes him the captivating master of the instrument he is in almost all of the concertos he played and recorded. All four live recordings Ferras left behind of the Sibelius are remarkable, and in most cases they are very much more than that: de Freitas Branco/Lisbon in 1957 is the earliest, the others being Mehta/Paris 1965, Szell/Cleveland 1965 and Karajan/BPO at the Berlin Festival in 1971 – Karajan’s only live performance of the Sibelius concerto. In their own ways each is a profound document of this concerto, but perhaps none is more shattering than the Ferras/Mehta – one of the most powerful and raw pieces of film ever released of a violinist. It is unmissable.

A previous Ferras/Melo release – back in 2013 – focused on solo Bach and a couple of works with his regular pianist, Pierre Barbizet with whom he shared a very long if highly volatile – and sometimes destructive – musical partnership. The Melo recordings here – all of D major concertos – are of concerts from Ferras’s German tours between 1954 and 1961. Except for the Prokofiev concerto with Dean Dixon, making its first appearance on a commercial CD, all of the concertos exist in multiple live performances – in some cases quite a few of them. The earliest, the Beethoven concerto with Hans Müller-Kray dates from 1954, when Ferras was 21, and is a more elusive performance than the more famous studio version he made as a 19-year-old with Karl Böhm and the Berliner Philharmoniker. They do not differ considerably in detail, only in the emotional pull they have on the listener.

Ferras’s way with this concerto changed markedly over the years – the sheer freshness and exhilaration of the Böhm, marked by a peerless technique and an already deep emotional understanding of this work would reach its zenith in 1967 with a recording made in Paris that is like no other. It is crushing, so nakedly emotional – and so savage in its power that Ferras cares little about the art of precision, although by this stage of his career his alcoholism had significantly affected his technical security. The Müller-Kray falls somewhere between these two. It is one of those performances that is more of a tussle between the soloist and conductor; most of us won’t be oblivious to the clash between Ferras and Müller-Kray in much of this performance, especially the first movement. The maturity of a young Ferras in grasping such control of this performance is often one of breathtaking assurance. When we get to the cadenza, Ferras seems intent on unleashing quite a lot of his frustration with Müller-Kray; this is one of the most muscular and powerful Kreisler cadenzas on record. It’s highly dramatic, a rhetorical reading that’s thrilling to hear. Often this makes for quite a fascinating interpretation of the concerto, but one still can’t overcome the feeling that Müller-Kray is asleep at the wheel and without Ferras to drive much of this performance, often quite hard, one might be left with a dull reading. That we aren’t is because almost every facet of Ferras’s considerable art is on display here: the effortless projection of a vision that gives a complete picture of where this performance is going, the sublime singing line, the profound beauty of what we hear. Ferras is nothing short of phenomenal.

The 1957 Tchaikovsky recording is also with Hans Müller-Kray but he is in much better form this time, although playing without the soloist he still has a tendency to wander off tempo and apply strange rubato [Allegro moderato, 6:05 – 6:43]. A rather later Tchaikovsky concerto with Ferras, this time from Paris in April 1964 with Eugene Jochum, and taken at a markedly faster tempo, is electrifying. It can sound loose, on the cusp of dangerously falling off a cliff it’s so on the edge; Ferras comes close to challenging the limits of his own technique. That he keeps control is something of a miracle. Here he is more measured, although there is something uncommonly noble about this 1957 performance which is missing from the Paris one; it is also in better sound. Those upper harmonics have much more purity of tone, largely because Ferras has more time to play them here; in Paris they can sound rushed. He is more than a minute slower in the Canzonetta in Stuttgart and that extra breadth, that relaxation, allows Ferras’s famed warmth to blossom. The slightly broader final movement sounds less risky than he took it under Jochum – although it lacks none of the excitement – and yet the playing is flawless. Intonation is impeccable. Few performances [7:15 onwards] generate quite the thrill Ferras does as he brings this concerto towards its climax. You will want both performances of the Tchaikovsky, not least because the Paris concert is one of the most hair-raising rides this concerto has to offer.

As with the Beethoven concerto, Christian Ferras returned to the Brahms often and there are several live performances which survive. None of them are in the slightest less than outstanding. One of his finest – and it is exceptional by any standard for this concerto – is with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was given in Symphony Hall on 7th March 1959. Earlier concerts were done with Rudolf Kempe in Frankfurt in December 1953, and Ernst Ansermet in Geneva in 1958. When we come to his July 1966 performance from Paris with Charles Bruck, from the same period as the Keilberth Beethoven, we get into some unbearably emotional territory indeed. All have been available on CD (the Ferras/Bruck Brahms is coupled with an Oistrakh Brahms for good measure). The very late Brahms performance from 1978 – Monte-Carlo/Josefovitz – has never been released – partly, I think, because it shows a great violinist at his most vulnerable. He would increasingly retreat from concerts after 1979, defeated by unsuccessful attempts to stop drinking. He would commit suicide four years later.

If there is a drawback to the German tour Brahms recording from Hamburg it is again the conductor, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. His accompaniment can sound on the heavy side (though not in sostenuto as Müller-Kray leaned towards) – especially compared with both the Munch and Bruck. Ferras, however, was almost born to play this concerto. It suits the sweetness of his tone and that big Romantic, sweeping sound to perfection. There is considerable finesse here: the double stops are clean, broken chords are navigated solidly, intonation is pure (how beautifully poetic the Adagio becomes in his hands – it’s done with consummate beauty). Despite Schmidt-Isserstedt’s somewhat workman like handling of his NDR players Ferras is clearly in accord with him. It’s a polished and idiomatic Brahms performance – perhaps the most idiomatic of the four live ones we have from Christian Ferras.

The performance here of Prokofiev’s D major Violin Concerto sounds significantly better than the radio broadcast which surfaced on some newsgroups a few years ago. It is the only known live performance of Ferras playing this particular concerto – or indeed any Prokofiev – other than an unpublished one for EMI France conducted by Prêtre in 1963. It is by some considerable distance the finest thing on these discs.

Having the American conductor Dean Dixon certainly helps. Very little he conducted in Germany (he hardly conducted at all in the US after 1949 because of racial bias) was uninteresting and the sparks are clearly lit in this performance with Ferras and they do much more than flicker. They positively crackle and explode at times. Apart from the drama and exhilarating virtuosity we hear in this performance, much of this concerto’s line rests above the stave and this is where Ferras is often most comfortable. Always a violinist who could pinpoint octave leaps, it is also no surprise that he can control his bow with extraordinary precision and control. There is absolutely no quiver whatsoever during the closing bar; it is rocksteady.

Remarkably complex in its changes of mood for its relatively short time span, the Prokofiev First can sometimes seem just too short to make this all work. Some may find Ferras more sweet toned than most – his lyricism is of the kind which could only come from a French violinist, and moreover one who willingly embraced portamento and slides in a way which Oistrakh or Kogan wouldn’t. That is much less evident in this performance, but the sheer beauty of it puts it somewhat in a class of its own. That is not to say that Ferras doesn’t bring an element of savagery and malevolence to the Scherzo. It’s bitter and gripping; terrifying in the way that Ferras grinds the notes one minute and then uses his bow like a rapier to slash at his strings the next. It’s a thrilling performance, as important as any of Sibelius recordings.

The only biography of Christian Ferras, by Thierry de Choudens, is subtitled ‘Le violon d’Icare’. When I look back on Christian Ferras’s career – from that very early Beethoven Violin Concerto with Karl Böhm when he was 19 years-old to the live Sibelius violin concertos with Mehta and Karajan, the Prokofiev Concerto here and, most significantly, the late 1960s Beethoven and Brahms concertos when he was giving performances that were of disturbing intensity, what strikes me is a violinist who was breaking the mould of an artist willing to sacrifice himself for his art. Many of his live performances are acts of self-immolation. Ferras’s greatness isn’t because he was a precise or perfect violinist; it’s because he was one of the supreme artists willing to bare his soul with a rare intensity, no matter how vulnerable it made him. Thierry de Choudens writes at the very end of his biography that for Ferras, “Les concerts sont des aventures au cours desquelles il prend tous les risques”. Ferras was entirely about risk.

As de Choudens implies in the title of his biography the troubled Ferras flew too close to the sun and the price he paid for doing so was a terrible one.

I don’t expect to hear a finer set of discs this year by a violinist than these. These are superb performances by an absolute master of the instrument.

Marc Bridle


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