When Ginette Neveu’s plane crashed in 1949 the musical world lost a striking talent at the peak of her career. Having begun lessons with her mother and made her début at seven, she was taught by Jules Boucherit at the Paris Conservatoire where she won the premier prix, before further studies with George Enescu and Carl Flesch. The latter offered her a scholarship after hearing her in a competition in Vienna in 1931. Neveu treasured Flesch’s tuition: he did not wish to tinker with the musicianship she already displayed, but merely offered technical advice.
Winning the 1935 Wieniawski Competition was something of a coup for the French ‘school’ which had suffered a lean period after Jacques Thibaud’s earlier success. Thibaud, indeed, described Neveu as ‘the priestess’ of music.
Neveu, as her discography bears witness, was strong-minded regarding interpretation. She once refused to follow Enescu’s guidance on the Bach D minor Chaconne, saying: ‘I play this music as I understand it; not in a way which escapes my comprehension.’ Ida Haendel spoke of her first encounter, aged seven, with the teenage Neveu at Flesch’s Paris studio: ‘[…] her playing was intense and passionate, her tone large and vibrato wide. Her dramatic approach had the impact of a volcano.’ Interestingly, New York critics—who were fonder of the Russian school by this time—found a ‘lack of power’ in her 1937 US début.
Ferruccio Bonavia, a pupil of Joachim, praised her for an apparent reversion to an older style drawing on the theories of Joachim, Sarasate and Ysaÿe. He disliked modernist principles, especially the ‘accepted rule that vibrato is more important than bowing in the production of a warm, pleasing sound’, suggesting that Neveu was more successful in her pursuit of power and tonal variety. This is amply borne out in her recordings.
It seems most appropriate to begin with her Sibelius Concerto with the Philharmonia orchestra under Walter Susskind in 1945. This is perhaps one of her most famous performances and, as a personal aside, was instrumental in revealing to me at the age of twelve the fascinating world of historical recordings. The Philharmonia itself is far from perfect, with numerous split brass notes and, of course, the orchestral sound one associates with this period, including clarinets employing vibrato but oboes without any. From the start Neveu’s sound is dark, powerful, even menacing. She begins at a very regular pace in a measured way, with a typically deep and resonant sound that, whilst laden with vibrato, is nonetheless generated principally from the bow. There are a number of portamenti, although they tend to be fairly fast and light. The finale is richly toned but no less articulate and clear, whilst the climax of the slow movement is immediately arresting in a highly charged and captivating performance.
Neveu seems to have been most comfortable in Romantic repertoire, which suits her rich sound and her evidently passionate bearing. Her 1949 Beethoven Concerto with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud, although a fine rendition, is thus a little less successful tonally. Interestingly her fingerings appear to bear significant resemblance to Joachim’s, although the cadenza is Kreisler’s. Her sound is pure and controlled here, and certainly more chaste (for example in the slow movement) than in other repertoire she recorded. Nonetheless, the ending of the first movement is firmly articulated and the start of the finale similarly percussive and clear.
Her 1946 Brahms Concerto is another of her finest recordings, although it does not quite have the white-heat intensity that characterises Adolf Busch’s playing described elsewhere in this book. Neveu’s smouldering emotion is perhaps better suited to other works; in this category comes a superlative reading of Ravel’s Tzigane (1946)—in my view the finest on record—with its artistic élan, fantastic technical security in left-hand pizzicati and the immense, rich and never harsh sound of the opening.
As a ‘snapshot’ of her playing style, her Chausson Poème (1946) is a masterpiece. The slow, controlled opening intriguingly hints at extraordinary reserves of interpretative energy and personal engagement. Use of agogic accents can seem rather mannered in this opening section, but Neveu’s intense, continuous vibrato sounds at all times justified musically: a natural by-product of her potent playing and not a device of mere tonal beautification or stylistic habit. Her 1949 Brahms Op. 108 Sonata, accompanied by her brother Jean-Paul, is equally emotive with moments of quite extraordinary, volcanic power (as at the start of the finale) but overall this is a much less successful performance, spoilt by a rather harsh recording quality.
Neveu’s was a powerful and personal talent and she is one of few on record who really communicate in spite of the distance of the recording medium. One can only wonder at the experience of hearing her live, and mourn the tragic curtailment of her life.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)