WORKS: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74/3 (Rider); String Quartet in B flat, K458 (Hunt); String Quartet in C, K465 (Dissonance)
PERFORMER: Vlach Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PR 250 098 ADD mono
Poised with baton beneath a flaming sky, Serge Koussevitzky cuts a handsome profile. And the image certainly fits the music: put on the opening track of this Pearl CD and you’re rocketed heavenward on what must be one of the most thrilling Brahms Thirds ever recorded. The Boston brass rings resplendent, double basses are well to the fore (Koussevitzky was himself a double-bass virtuoso) and the massed strings have a glamorous sheen that fully equals Karajan’s in Berlin. Koussevitzky’s ear for sound was matched by an acute sense of musical structure, so that although the Fourth Symphony has a distinctive tonal lustre, the profound logic of Brahms’s utterance is never compromised. As Fourths go it’s pretty near the top of the list, but the Third ranks with Furtwängler’s (EMI) at the very top.
Koussevitzky’s tenure at the Boston Symphony lasted some 25 years – a mere interlude compared with the nigh-on fifty years that Mravinsky spent as head of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Both conductors nurtured an unmistakable ‘sound’ – Koussevitzky’s being bold and brazen with delicate woodwind timbres, Mravinsky’s sleek, hugely dynamic and precise almost to the point of obsession. Or at least that’s how we hear the majority of his commercial recordings, most notably the Tchaikovsky symphony discs for DG (both mono and stereo versions). However, a recent deluge of broadcast material – most of it emanating from Russian radio archives – presents a very different Mravinsky, and never more so than in a live Tchaikovsky Fifth dating from 1949. Here we have a great interpretation captured in embryo – massive, impulsive, fitfully brilliant and with numerous executive mishaps that would never have survived a studio editor’s desk. Some might actually prefer it to Mravinsky’s later efforts: it’s rather more human, tempi are less frenetic than they later became and Mravinsky’s manner of phrasing is surprisingly flexible. There’s a fill-up too in Daniel Shafran’s superb (though badly recorded) performance of a likeable concerto by a great Russian cellist of the Tchaikovsky era, Karl Yulyevich Davidov.
Still, if it’s stellar solo playing you’re after, nothing I’ve heard in recent months quite matches a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio by the David Oistrakh Trio, where the contrasting tones of Oistrakh himself (warm, rounded, judiciously phrased) and his cello-partner Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (intense though less individual) are supported by a dependable and occasionally inspired Lev Oborin (piano). The performance is taken from a 1961 concert and is coupled, somewhat incongruously, I’ll admit, with a vital, if unexceptional, reading of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet conducted by Alexander Dmitriev. Both recordings are acceptable, rather more so in fact than in the extraordinarily brilliant solo recital that violinist Nathan Milstein gave at the Library of Congress during October 1946. Suave and confident as ever, Milstein makes light work of Vitali’s Chaconne, Bach’s G minor Solo Sonata, a dazzling unaccompanied sequence of Paganini ‘tunes’ called the Paganiniana ‘Variations’ and Wieniawski’s Scherzo tarantelle. It’s fabulous playing, though hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto piano-accompanied does rather compromise one’s enjoyment.
A more distinctive manner of pianism is provided by Solomon, whose mighty recording of Brahms’s F minor Sonata – long unavailable in any format – fully equals those of Rubinstein (RCA), Harold Bauer and Percy Grainger (both Biddulph). Solomon makes aural sculpture of the Andante espressivo and the CD also includes sterling accounts of Schumann’s Carnaval and pieces by Liszt. Here there’s concentration and integrity to spare, qualities that also distinguish the work of the Lithuanian-born cellist Albert Catell, a pupil of the great Emanuel Feuermann. In fact, Catell has something of his old teacher’s tonal firmness, and if his Dvorák Concerto is perhaps just a little sedate, his phrasing is seamless and his musicianship warmly communicative. The coupling finds Catell on the rostrum directing an equally solid account of Dvorák’s delightful Wind Serenade.
Moving now to Dvorák’s homeland we find the estimable Vlach Quartet infusing maximum personality into three top-grade string quartets – Haydn’s Rider plus two works from the set of six that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, the Hunt and the Dissonance quartets. All three performances emanate from Czech Radio broadcasts and record playing that combines clear articulation, a full-bodied pooled tone and a notably Romantic manner of phrasing. It’s a fascinating view of musical Classicism, though stylistically out of step with the lighter, more distanced approach favoured by so many of today’s ensembles.
Similarly, I wonder how many younger pianists could inform Carl Nielsen’s Humoresque-Bagatelles with the degree of personality that Galina Werschenska brings to them. Her performances take their rightful place alongside a whole host of distinctive Nielsen recordings that Danacord has collected for us, piano music mostly but with some significant organ works added – Commotio, for example, Nielsen’s solo instrumental masterpiece as played by Finn Viderø, who had actually played the work to Nielsen himself.