WORKS: Violin Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Heifetz; Boston SO/Koussevitzky, San Francisco SO/Monteux
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110942 Reissue (1937, 1945)
Adrian Boult’s peerless reputation in British music has inevitably obscured the fact that he was also a masterly interpreter of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire. Among the rich harvest of his late recordings for EMI in the mid-Seventies those of the Brahms Symphonies and SCHUBERT ‘Great C major’ hold particular pride of place. Yet the first of his three recordings of the Schubert is no less outstanding. It was made in 1934 with the BBC SO and is distinguished by some brilliant string-playing, especially in the taxing finale. Elsewhere in the work, Boult maintains an engaging flexibility of tempo, allowing both muscular rhythmic dynamism and lyrical reflection, without losing grip of the structural logic of each movement. Beulah’s transfer of the HMV 78s sounds remarkably vivid, and the level of surface noise, although high, is far less obtrusive than in the recordings of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, which date from the previous year.
Another conductor who produced marvellous results with a radio orchestra was Leopold Stokowski. During the Second World War, the maestro took charge of the NBC Symphony, and in a series of broadcast concerts provided audiences with typically provocative programmes. Among the highlights of the 1942/3 season was one of the earliest non-British performances of VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’s Fourth Symphony, delivered here with uncompromising fire and brimstone. Although there are some notable imperfections of ensemble, particularly in the brass section, and densely textured passages sound rather congested, any momentary doubts are swept away by the sheer physical urgency of the playing. Yet it would be difficult to give this disc an unequivocal recommendation since the companion pieces, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad and the rather empty Fourth Symphony of George Antheil, suffer from poor engineering and some momentary fluctuations of pitch.
There are no qualms whatsoever about sound quality in the early Fifties Decca recordings of Clemens Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic in RICHARD STRAUSS’s early symphonic fantasy Aus Italien and three excerpts from Salome lovingly restored to the catalogue by Testament. One need hardly emphasise the strengths of Krauss’s interpretations, which preserve an admirable objective restraint and textural clarity that were so characteristic of the composer’s own performances, yet also manage to project passion and intensity at the requisite moments of climax. This is particularly crucial in Aus Italien, which emerges in this performance as a far stronger work than I had previously imagined.
Opportunities for hearing composers conducting their own music should never be passed up lightly, and the appearance of a disc featuring rare recordings by STRAVINSKY and PROKOFIEV is bound to arouse strong interest. Admittedly the Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss with the Mexico SO in 1941 doesn’t boast the most sophisticated playing, but the composer injects plenty of character and vibrant energy into proceedings, and the 1947 recording of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, featuring a top-rate chamber ensemble led by Alexander Schneider, has an infectious joie de vivre. Yet the most revelatory performance here is Prokofiev’s 1938 recording of the Second Romeo and Juliet Suite with the Moscow Philharmonic. Again one might harbour some doubts about the qualities of the orchestra, particularly the distinctly undernourished sound of the strings. But Prokofiev’s direct and straightforward account of the score is strongly compelling. There are no histrionics or over-inflated gestures, yet the tight rhythmic grip exerted in movements such as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ remains tremendously exciting.
Another legendary PROKOFIEV recording is the 1937 performance of the Second Violin Concerto featuring Jascha Heifetz and the Boston SO under Serge Koussevitzky, superbly transferred to CD by Mark Obert-Thorn. Needless to say, Heifetz’s delivery of the solo part is mesmerically brilliant in the finale, but the violinist also captures to perfection the lyrical nostalgia of the slow movement. Although there are precious few differences in interpretative nuance between this recording and the more familiar 1959 version, also made in Boston for RCA, the earlier performance conveys greater warmth and space. The coupling of Louis Gruenberg’s Violin Concerto is something of a curiosity – an attempt to write an accessible work in the manner of Gershwin, but lacking the thematic distinctiveness of the more familiar composer.
Almost all of Naxos’s burgeoning Heifetz series provides essential listening, especially since the transfers are so uniformly satisfying. A particularly generous coupling matches the 1934 GLAZUNOV Violin Concerto with the 1947 Bruch Scottish Fantasy, and the 1941 Brahms Double Concerto with Emanuel Feuermann and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. There is an almost breathless excitement in the first movement of the Brahms, with both soloists attempting to outdo each other in terms of individual virtuosity. Technically the playing is beyond reproach, but there are times when the music requires greater breadth and majesty. These qualities are more apparent in an earlier recording of the same work featuring Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals and the Barcelona Orchestra conducted by Alfred Cortot. Admittedly, both the sound and the standard of orchestral playing are notably inferior, but from the first notes of the opening cadenza Casals draws a melodic line of greater fervour than Feuermann, and although Thibaud’s tone is less ingratiating than that of Heifetz, his interpretation has far more repose.