Once described as ‘one of the romantic violinists supreme’ by New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, Aaron Rosand has a truly enormous discography, only the very surface of which can be scratched in this biography. He studied with Leon Sametini in Chicago from 1939 and later became a pupil of noted Auer pupil, Efrem Zimbalist. Rosand thus considers himself to be the inheritor of two powerful traditions, that of the Auer-Joachim line, and also that of Ysaÿe (who taught Sametini). This consciousness of nineteenth-century heritage perhaps explains his reputation as a leader of the Romantic revival of the latter half of the twentieth century. He has certainly made deliberate efforts, both in his own playing and in teaching at a number of American institutions, to perpetuate these two traditions.
Rosand played the ‘ex-Kochanski’ 1741 Guarnerius violin for over half a century, eventually selling it for $10 million in 2009 in order to present the Curtis Institute’s Aaron Rosand Chair of Violin Studies with an endowment of $1.5 million.
It seems fitting to represent Rosand’s playing with nineteenth-century works, since he largely avoids contemporary compositions, finding them often ‘unviolinistic’. In violin and piano repertoire his 1961 Beethoven sonata cycle is a masterly document, epitomised here by Op. 96 in a sensitive and considered reading, ably partnered by his wife Eileen Flissler (even if the balance between the instruments is a little too far in his favour at times). This, Rosand’s first release to achieve significant critical acclaim, sounds in many ways thoroughly modern, untouched by the now-common influence of historical consciousness. Accordingly, a heavy vibrato permeates the performance, which occasionally lacks excitement although it is a caring rendition which elucidates the work well. The Brahms sonatas recorded in 1991 with Hugh Sung take the slow, treacly approach, with the exception of a very rapid finale to Op. 78 and a stout performance of Op. 108, which is the best of the three. Rosand’s 1991 Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances, for all their humour and commitment, could only be played this way in the latter half of the twentieth century, with its obsession with powerful sound and the hard, percussive tones of sharp off-string articulations on steel strings (as in the middle section of the first dance which sounds utterly unlike Joachim’s own 1903 rendition). Of Joachim’s own music, the B flat Romance (which is seldom heard and well represents the kind of repertoire revival for which Rosand has become famous) is given a ponderous reading, heavily laden with the kind of over-spiced vibrato that, rather than demonstrating Auer’s heritage, is exactly the kind of approach he would have disliked intensely. This said, there is no doubt that Rosand’s powerful sound is what many would consider Romantic. Amongst his many distinguished concerto performances it is interesting to find Joachim’s ‘Hungarian’ Concerto in its 1972 première recording—a work long neglected, no doubt due to its immense difficulty and length. Here Rosand delivers a slightly relentless rhetoric, missing perhaps some of the introspection and subtlety of Joachim’s language. Also unusual is Hubay’s Concerto No. 3 (another première recording from 1972) in which Rosand’s rich vibrato is quite fitting, given similar characteristics in Hubay’s own playing. In both these works Rosand is in complete technical command, ricochet bowings in the Scherzo of the Hubay being especially effective.
Undoubtedly, Rosand’s powerful vibrato and heart-on-sleeve approach—inherently twentieth-century traits—fuel his reputation as a Romantic violinist. His authoritative resurrection and promotion of forgotten repertoire makes an outstanding contribution to modern violin playing.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)