Mischa Elman: BBC Radio Recitals = Music of HANDEL, BACH, BEETHOVEN VITALI, BRAHMS, KREISLER & others – Testament (2 CDs)

by | Feb 23, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Mischa Elman: BBC Radio Recitals = HANDEL: Violin Sonata in D, HWV 171; BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”; BACH: Suite No. 3 in D Major: Air; Partita No. 3 in E: Gavotte en Rondeau; ESPEJO: Airs Tziganes, Op. 11; VITALI: Chaconne in G Minor; BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78; ACHRON: Hebrew Melody, Op. 33; KREISLER: Schoen Rosmarin; SMETANA: From My Homeland No. 2 – Mischa Elman, violin/ Joseph Seiger, piano – Testament SBT2 1475, (2 CDs) 53:04; 50:42 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
I recall having heard Mischa Elman (1891-1967) in concert at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, c. 1962, where he and Alfredo Antonini performed two concertos on the same program, the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky. Elman’s playing even to my youthful ears sounded “old world,” rife with slides, slow tempos, portamento, and what seemed to me as a slack approach to meter, which we would now attribute to heavy rubato. Still, stylistically, Elman projected a sweet naiveté that could prove charming, if not emotionally compelling. Later, I found records devoted to him on Vanguard; the RCA LPs, though obtainable for a heady price, already had passed out of print and were hard to come by.
The BBC radio archives restores for the first time recital materials that Elman and his steady partner Joseph Seiger performed in 1961. Elman did have a potent instrument in his Recamier Stradivarius, which did whatever Elman commanded. The opening Handel Sonata, a piece favored by the likes of the “faster school” of Milstein, Morini, and Oistrakh, finds a loving albeit slow realization, Affetuoso, from Elman, and his rallentandi could well become an irritating mannerism to modern ears. Dignified to a fault, one might venture. The ensuing Allegro carries more bite, solid musicianship that possesses hefty energy. The Larghetto projects sincere intimacy, although the slowness of the line threatens to break its lyric tension from time to time. The final Allegro exerts good energy despite the slides Elman adds that sentimentalize the otherwise strong riffs.
Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata receives a leisurely approach, but Seiger’s own bravura shines through, reminding us that at this point in Beethoven’s evolution, the violin could often fall into an obligatory role for the keyboard’s edification. The first movement repeat extends the lyricism further than most performers allow; and Elman demonstrates a real affection for its galant phrases, its sudden bursts of bucolic energy. Given Elman’s unhurried style, the Adagio molto espressivo finds a natural interpreter of its reflective tranquility, the piano’s consistently leading the melodic turns. The brief Scherzo indulges in playful syncopations, momentarily united in the bristly Trio, and then returned to their little cat-and-mouse pursuit. Triplets, syncopes, and trills mark the Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo, and Elman certainly does not hurry too fast, in a loving performance, if ever there were.
Elman’s plays the Wilhelmj arrangement with piano accompaniment of the Air in D on the G-string by Bach, a solemn procession in long notes, vibrant trills, and upward slides. The Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E represents virtually the only unaccompanied Bach Elman has left us, except for two brief inscriptions made in 1908. The Gavotte has clear, chiseled lines, the runs a bit slow but the melodic tissue delineated in brisk double notes; this, the same Gavotte Rachmaninov set as solo piano piece. Elman consistently championed the 1925 Gypsy Airs of Cesar Espejo (1892-1968), almost a complete contemporary of Elman. Like the larger pieces by Liszt and Sarasate, it falls into a slow (“lassu”) and fast (“friss”) pattern, if we liken it tow the music of Liszt or Bartok. Elman can show off his harmonics and glissando technique, as well as his oboe tone; the quick section reminds us of Monti’s Csardas.
The Vitale Chaconne (in the Ferdinand David edition) has had fine exponents in Milstein, Francescatti, Bobesco, da Vito, and Elman’s ultimate nemesis, Heifetz. Elman sets up an initial pulse and lets the music play itself forward, with Seiger’s luxuriant piano tones in support. One detects a distinct “Viennese” penchant for slides and tempo rubato, but Elman maintains the nobility of line and the various “colors” of the variants. The harmonic rhythm accelerates, and Elman’s intensity broadens, even as his idiosyncratic style manifests itself.
The 1879 Brahms G Major Sonata (“Regenlied”) inscribed here by Elman now completes his set of the Brahms three sonatas, his having never recorded this sonata commercially. Elman’s opening mezza voce on repeated Ds casts a luminous melancholy on the development, and Seiger’s keyboard part illuminates the nostalgia, the music’s having been conceived, with its repeated three-dotted-note rhythm, as a remembrance of Felix Schumann, who died young. The outer movements under Elman enjoy a surprisingly supple energy, relatively free of maudlin exaggeration of tempo or dynamic adjustment.
Most lied-like, the affectionate Adagio gains much by Elman and Seiger, its middle section a real requiem of plaintive melancholy. The running sixteenth notes provide the “rainy day” experience of the sonata’s last movement Allegro molto moderato, with Elman’s weaving a wistful somewhat hesitant melodic line that exploits the three-D’s pattern. The valedictory sensibility becomes forceful, insisting on its emotional relevance for us all: no wonder Clara Schumann exclaimed, “I wish the last movement could accompany me to the next world.”
After the Brahms, the little triptych to conclude seems anti-climactic: fellow Auer pupil Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody always appeals to Elman’s strong sense of ethnicity, the modal harmonies rife with the cantorial fervor we know from Ernest Bloch. A brisk but lilting Schoen Rosmarin testifies to the echt Vienna of schlag and Kreisler. The last piece, Andantino, the second Smetana’s My Homeland salon piece, assumes the character of a nostalgic waltz. The commentator for the album, Tully Porter, finds the playing lacking; but I find it ardent, sincere, and effective, a just tribute to the art of a violinist who may have been anachronistic, but only in the sense that genuine romance appears rarely in our efficient universe.
—Gary Lemco

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