Huberman began his formal violin studies at the age of six and only a year later appeared as soloist in Spohr’s Violin Concerto No. 2. At nine he went to Berlin and played for Joseph Joachim who accepted him as a pupil, although he was in fact tutored by one of Joachim’s assistants, Karl Markees. He subsequently took lessons from Grigorovich, Heermann and finally (in Paris) Marsick. Aged fourteen he performed Brahms’s Violin Concerto in front of the composer, who reportedly kissed him on the forehead, gave him a signed picture and proclaimed him a genius.
Despite this early adulation, Huberman’s concert appearances generally received as many poor reports as good ones, many critics commenting upon a harsh or forced tone which sometimes seemed to be applied quite arbitrarily and inappropriately.
Huberman’s recordings, often considered to be a very mixed blessing are, in many ways, fascinating. His first recordings—the two Berliner discs of 1899—are amongst very few examples of violin repertoire recorded in the nineteenth century. Both recordings (No. 3 of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, arranged by Auer, and Sarasate’s transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2) feature a surprising amount of vibrato, which rather unsettles theories that its use only became continuous in the twentieth century. The Chopin performance also shows an almost continuous portamento—between all significant intervals—and this prominent use of both vibrato and portamento would undoubtedly have incurred Joachim’s displeasure, notwithstanding Brahms’s endorsement of Huberman’s playing.
The Brunswick recordings from 1922–1924 maintain the frequent if discreet vibrato dimly discernible in the Berliner discs. They include a stylish Mazurka in D by Wieniawski (in which frequent portamenti are still in evidence) and a thrilling Polonaise by Vieuxtemps with amazingly accurate and pure left-hand technique.
Huberman’s Tchaikovsky and Beethoven concerto discs, made in 1928 and 1934 respectively and reissued together by Naxos, are masterpieces. In the Beethoven he utilises not only Joachim’s cadenzas but, it would seem, Joachim’s edition of the work; whilst the (by now) slightly slow and wide vibrato would have been alien to the old master, Huberman continues to use Joachim-style fingerings, often with similar applications of portamento. The Tchaikovsky recording is possibly one of the finest of the work, imbued with fantastic drive, energy and agonisingly beautiful, heartrending playing in the slow movement.
The Columbia discs from this period again show that by the late 1920s Huberman’s vibrato was becoming somewhat wider and slower, following a general stylistic trend that one hears from other players. His tone seems rather more acidic as well—something that mars his late recordings—although his 1934 performance of the Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2 is profound and intense. It makes no concessions whatsoever to stylistic sensitivity as such, but is a remarkable performance nonetheless. Huberman’s 1931 La Capricieuse by Elgar is, in many ways, very strange: it begins with a very dry and leaden piano introduction, but soon leads to whimsical (and almost sarcastic!) playing, tinged with brief moments of emotional intensity and an unrequited yearning so characteristic of Elgar’s music. All of these qualities seem oddly fitting and one could easily listen to this repeatedly with some fascination.
Huberman’s late recordings are, by and large, a rather sad testament to a waning career. In this respect recordings can be a very unforgiving witness to the inevitable deterioration of a player’s abilities, as in the case of Mischa Elman. Nonetheless, Huberman’s fire and interpretative inventiveness remain undimmed. Thus, Schubert’s Fantasy in C, D. 934 recorded in 1944 is full of verve but spoilt by some doubtful intonation (Huberman never having been beyond reproach in this respect) and rather untidy and heavy staccato articulation. The same can be said of his last recorded performance, the Violin Concerto No. 4, K. 218 by Mozart, recorded in 1946 with Bruno Walter. There is some rough playing here (especially in the finale) but also some interesting features. The first movement shows the continued presence of quite slow and pronounced portamenti whilst, once again, Huberman seems to be using an edition by Joachim, with many similar fingerings to his edition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as well as his cadenzas. No doubt such throwbacks to the nineteenth century would have seemed rather quaint to an audience of the mid 1940s, interesting as they are from our point of view today. They do at least represent part of Huberman’s controversial stature as a recording artist.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)