Erica Morini: The Complete Victor Recordings, 1921-1945 – Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, other works – Pristine Audio

by | Apr 20, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Erica Morini: The Complete Victor Recordings, 1921-1945 = Works by Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, Schubert, Godart, Toselli, Sarasate, Tobani, Lange, Brahms, Vivaldi, Ravel – Pristine Audio PASC 714 (2 CDs: 2hrs 3:22, complete content list below)[] *****:

Producer and Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has assembled the RCA legacy of “old world” Viennese violinist Erica Morini (1904-1995), who essentially set the bar in her art, not only for “female” violin soloists but for the mastery of the instrument generally. Obert-Thorn cites her personal credo and aesthetic: “A violinist is a violinist, and I am to be judged as one – not as a female musician.” A significant number of Morini’s 1921-1923 acoustic recordings of “encore miniatures” she remade under improved technical conditions in 1945, while with the Tchaikovsky Concerto, she would turn to Westminster in London, England to record in 1956 with Artur Rodzinski and the Royal Philharmonic.   

On November 18, 1921, seventeen-year-old Erica Morini made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Vieuxtemps’s First Violin Concerto with second music director Frederick Stock on the podium. “Good violinists, as all concert attendants know, are common enough these days, and most of them are young,” wrote Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune.

“Miss Morini, however, has a few things in her artistic makeup that take her widely out of even their class. It is not once in twenty times that one hears a violinist with the fiery vitality of this young girl… She gave rise to more violinistic fireworks at higher speed and got more of them correct than any one who has been on the stage since the day that Jascha Heifetz took away the breath of the same audience a few years ago.”

Morini later earned the distinction of being not only the first violinist but also the first woman to record commercially as a soloist with the Orchestra. On December 12, 1945, she recorded Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto under the baton of third music director Désiré Defauw in Orchestra Hall. The initial RCA Victor release was a 78 RPM record, and the subsequent 1957 LP re-release featured album cover art by Andy Warhol. Obert-Thorn includes this debut concerto performance that benefits from Pristine’s patented XR process.

 The collection opens with music by Sarasate, his Romanza andaluza (6 April 1921), with Alice Morini, piano. Erica Morini’s throaty 1727 Davidoff Stradivarius, despite the antique sound of the acoustic process, resounds much like a viola before the 17-year-old Morino guides its raspy and gypsy tropes into the aether. The application of subtle shades of rubato and a silken legato, besides a seamless trill, make for memorable beginning.  Between the other April 6 Sarasate offering, the compressed but blazing version of the Faust waltz, we have Wieniawski’s whimsical Capriccio-Valse, which proceeds like a coloratura aria for violin, sliding and toe-dancing, in turn. The quick registration shifts and alternations of arco and pizzicato filigree present no obstacles to the linear direction of her playing. 

Obert-Thorn then assembles the recordings of 4 November 1921, starting with the Zarzycki Mazurka in G, with Emanuel Balaban, piano. Zarzycki’s music here sashays much in the Chopin style, given the violin’s capacity for flute tone and raspy double-stopped chords. The second movement of Wieniawski’s D Minor Concerto ensues, emanating a secure sense of calm and repose, the gradually soaring line hued slightly by breathed portamento. The mincing steps of Godard’s Canzonetta bear a distinctly Spanish lilt, a coy charm. If this were a vocal realization, I would opt for Lily Pons or Jeanette MacDonald. 

The year 1922 (April 3) yields a mere two offerings: Schumann’s At the Fountain plays like a mad étude of frenzied, buzzing notes that relent a bit for the trio section. An attempt to out-do the future bumble-bee of Rimsky-Korsakov?  The Schuber Valse sentimentale from the collection of waltzes D. 783 drips with old-Viennese lilt, quite in the tradition of elder colleague Fritz Kreisler. 

Three items from 1923: the first (rec. 4 January) is Svendsen’s lovely Romance in G, sporting a melody easily comparable to the best of Grieg. Alice Morini returns to accompany Erica Morini. Tchaikovsky’s familiar June Barcarolle evolves in balanced phrases tinged by nostalgia. The middle section becomes more inflamed and features a solo cadenza prior to the da capo. On 6 February 1923 Morini and Sándor Vas recorded Toselli’s Serenata “Rimpianto” after what Obert-Thorn tells us were 13 takes! We should feel the efforts were worth the fluid, singing results.

Two items appear from a session of 7 January 1924, the first of which, Gustav Lange’s Blumenlied, pairs Morini with Kurt Hetzel. The piece itself seems demure, much in the style of Delibes. Its lyrical middle section allows Morini some legato then glissando filigree, polished if not particularly profound. No conductor claims credit for the highly abridged Camen Fantasy despite the alluring orchestra color that accompanies Morini’s dervish-like figurations, such as the clear sound of castanets. A virtuoso application of techniques opens the suite, with a coyly insinuation of passion infiltrating the habanera. A combination of pizzicato, harmonics and tremolos vibrates us to a curtailed coda. From 27 March 1924 we have a sentimental Hearts and Flowers of 1893 by Tobani, with Nathaniel Shilkret at the keyboard.  How many melodramas utilized this tune would be difficult to count, but Morini delivers the waltz with a sense of dignity.

Disc 2 opens with Morini and pianist Max Lanner performing (8 December 1941) Vivaldi’s Violin Sonata in D, RV 10 in an arrangement by Respighi. The interest in Baroque repertory would manifest itself in Morini’s later recordings for Westminster and American Decca. Morini takes the second movement Allegro moderato with a sassy gusto, etching the notes with a pointed sense of line. The first and third movements offer a relaxed cantilena from Morini, especially the Largo movement. The last movement Vivace moves rather glibly, with compelling effects in bowing finger pressure. From the same session Morini revisits the Romance from the Wieniawski D Minor Concerto, the realization some ten seconds faster than her prior recording. Why RCA would not have felt inclined to devote her to the full concerto only poses a question we tend to regret. 

November 7 of 1941 yields the other Wieniawski previously recorded, the Caprice-Valse, here without the surface scuff of acoustic shellacs. Morini at thirty-seven years of  age seems at her technical peak, given the easy fluidity of execution she demonstrates. The Ravel Pièce en forme de Habanera, rare moment of French-Basque intimacy from Morini, projects an erotic pathos, here from the same session 7 November 1941. The contribution from pianist Max Lanner (1907-1991), rippling with lithe energy, requires mention. Lanner applies heft to the opening measures of the Sarasate arrangement of the Faust Waltz, again rendered more quickly – but no less razor-sharp brilliantly – than the version of 1921. 

Obert-Thorn presents the original ordering of the Brahms (arranged Joachim)  Hungarian Dances RCA offered in their album M-1053, recorded with Artur Balsam 28 September 1945. The No. 17 in F# Minor enjoys a yearning, gypsy flavor, and Morini’s double-stops are nothing if not pungent. The No. 6 in B-flat Major, with its vehement opening, moves in decisive, faux-Magyar series of starts and stops, each touched with a pert irony, almost as if Franz Liszt had coached this rendition. The ubiquitous No. 5 in G Minor slithers into our imagination with dark gusto; and if we care to visualize Charlie Chaplin’s shaving a customer in perfect synchronization in The Great Dictator, we have no obstacles, except perhaps Morini’s rubatos. The terse No. 7 on A Major casts a sly pace that suddenly bursts forth in playful urgency, aided by a brief cadenza. The No. 8 in A Minor enjoys a vivid texture with diverse agogics, quite subtle for the set. Morini delivers an explosive rendering, thrilling in each gesture. I recall owning a Camden LP that included Morini playing the last of the set, No. 1 in G Minor, with a dark, “viola” melody set above Balsam’s cascading arpeggios. Morini’s shifts of register and diverse attacks simply electrify our sensibilities; and, along with the succeeding recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, should inspire a renewed interest in this monumental artist. 

For her first recording of the 12 December 1945 Tchaikovsky Concerto, Morini has the assistance of Belgian conductor Désiré Defauw (1885-1960), who led the Chicago Symphony from 1943-1947. Morini, much in the way of Russian colleague Nathan Milstein, urges the line of the first movement Allegro moderato mercilessly, her technical resources demonic. Defauw earns his fee by keeping pace, and the details of inflection and color remain intact. The series of variations on the first movement’s quasi-martial theme project a determined, unswerving velocity, pointed to the second emergence of the tutti extension of the climactic theme prior to the cadenza. The cadenza indicates what Morini might have accomplished for unaccompanied Bach or Bartók, had RCA the vision to engage her. When the flute enters alongside her trill, the effect proves magical. In tandem with my preferred version by Zino Francescatti and Dimitri Mitropoulos, I rate this first movement among the best preserved, given the selectively abridged edition of the score.  

The G Minor Canzonetta offers immediate relief from the violent fury of the first movement coda, here a song that reveals the exquisite textures of Morini’s chosen instrument. The interlude ends attacca subito, with another propulsion of energy to the thunderous Allegro vivacissimo that Morini greets with a rasping G string. The ensuing Russian dance cuts some of the redundant loops in the score that many contemporary players restore. But the brio and élan exhibited by Morini and Defauw demonstrate a true sense of artistic unity of conception, both in the ardent force of execution and the contrasting tenderness of expression in the A Major section. Some might argue that Morini’s later account with Artur Rodzinski has greater force in the coda, but it presents a happy dilemma, given the colossal artistry that each of Morini’s recordings demonstrates.

–Gary Lemco

Erica Morini: The Complete Victor Recordings, 1921-1945

DISC 1: Acoustic Recordings:
1SARASATE: Romanza andaluza, Op. 22; Waltz from Fantasy on Gounod’s Faust, Op. 13;
WIENIAWSKI: Capriccio-Valse, Op. 7;
1SVENDSEN: Romance in G Major, Op. 26;
1TCHAIKOVSKY: June from The Seasons, Op. 37a;
2ZARZYCKI: Mazurka in G Major, Op. 26;
2WIENIAWSKI: Romance from Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22;
2GODARD: Canzonetta from Concerto romantique, Op. 35;
2SCHUMANN: At the Fountain;
2SCHUBERT (arr. Franko): Valse sentimentale No. 10, D. 783;
3TOSELLI: Serenata “Rimpianto,” Op. 6/1;
4LANGE: Blumenlied, Op. 39;
5SARASATE: Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen, Op. 25;
6TOBANI: Hearts and Flowers, Op. 245

with 1Alice Morini, piano/ 2Emanuel Balaban, piano/  3Sándor Vas artist, piano/ 4Kurt Hetzel, piano/ 5Orchestra, unidentified conductor/ 6Nathaniel Shilkret, piano

DISC 2: Electrical Recordings:
7VIVALDI (arr. Respighi): Violin Sonata in D, RV 10;
7WIENIAWSKI: Romance from Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22;
7Capriccio-Valse, Op. 7;
7RAVEL (arr. Catherine): Pièce en forme de Habanera;
7SARASATE: Waltz from Fantasy on Gounod’s Faust, Op. 13;
8BRAHMS (arr. Joachim): 6 Hungarian Dances;
9TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

with7Max Lanner, piano/8Artur Balsam, piano/9Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Desiré Defauw cond.

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