Heifetz, Rubinstein, Piatigorsky

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Mendelssohn,Walton
LABELS: EMI Classic Archive DVA
WORKS: Works by Beethoven, Walton, Mendelssohn
PERFORMER: LPO/Antal Dorati, BBC SO/ Malcolm Sargent, Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra/Donald Voorhees
CATALOGUE NO: 4 92840 9

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These recordings, mostly in black-and-white and from the BBC or French television in the Sixties, are a reminder of something that has almost entirely disappeared: the regular televising of classical music, often specially mounted in the studio. Both versions of the Beethoven Violin Concerto originated like this: the French go in for close-ups of kogan’s face and hands, more frequent cutting and faster pans and zooms, whereas the BBC style with menuhin is less intrusive and jumpy.

But apart from these technical differences, it’s fascinating to see the contrast between the performing styles of the two violinists: Kogan technically assured and aristocratic in bearing, with subtle body language, Menuhin more spiritual but less polished. It’s a pity that we don’t see him in any chamber music, a medium that goes with the intimacy of the small screen. The total visual concentration of Kogan in Handel adds so much to what’s coming out of the loudspeakers, and he’s such a contrast to oistrakh, who always looks businesslike, but dispatches a beautifully poised Spring Sonata (though he and his pianist Lev Oborin hardly have any visual contact) and a lithe, muscular Bach concerto.

I was expecting the Heifetz/ Rubinstein/Piatigorsky Trio on their DVD, but they appear separately, with Heifetz poorly filmed and recorded in 1949 in the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto and Rubinstein in the RFH at the age of 80, with his gnarled old hands still getting around the keyboard with enormous facility in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. Most interesting is Piatigorsky in the 1957 British premiere of Walton’s Cello Concerto (in the RFH, not the Royal Albert Hall as claimed). But on the whole, this is a rather bitty DVD, unlike arrau’s, which contains three good full-length pieces.

The Schumann Concerto is on the stodgy side, even though Arrau is a very physical pianist, but his Carnaval is much more characterful, with the pianist crouching over the keyboard, grading the sound and coaxing out the personality of each piece. And there couldn’t be more contrast between Arrau’s Beethoven and the distinguished, controlled playing of Solomon in the Appassionata on the bonus track: the only surviving footage of him, dating from 1956. The highlight of these releases features rostropovich and richter in the complete Beethoven cello sonatas at the 1964 Edinburgh Festival. This is contained, unhysterical playing, and the body language is of enjoyment, rather than exhibition.

Like Oistrakh and Oborin, the two performers don’t look at each other much, but their unanimity of ensemble and intent is remarkable. Would television spend so much time on something so unglamorous today? crespin has glamour aplenty, but also subtlety in her singing and acting: she doesn’t mug for the camera, but a raised eyebrow or a slight smile goes a long way. Again, the bonus is a real find: Denise Duval singing Poulenc, with the composer at the piano (and impersonating the Husband in the excerpt from Les mamelles de Tirésias). The only musician caught in colour is, appropriately, stokowski.

His Beethoven and Schubert are slow and indulgent by today’s tastes, and there’s a typically unusual orchestral layout, but the Meistersinger Prelude and Debussy’s L’après-midi are much more up his street, and the LSO produces a rich sound under his hands – eloquent as ever, even at the age of 90.

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Throughout the series the cleaning-up of picture and sound in what must have been some pretty variable material has been well managed: there’s the inevitable odd glitch, and some of the fades in and out are too abrupt, but the chance to see vintage live performances by artists of this calibre is hard to pass up.