About this Recording
8.110912 - TCHAIKOVSKY / WIENIAWSKI: Violin Concertos (Elman) (1929, 1950)

Great Violinists • Mischa Elman

Great Violinists • Mischa Elman

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 • Sérénade Mélancolique, Op. 26

WIENIAWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22

Every violin virtuoso is unique but Mischa Elman has a special niche in the Pantheon. For one thing, he initiated and inspired the wave of superb Jewish violinists who poured out of the East European ghettos in the first quarter of this century; and for another, while still a boy he invented the modern violin sound. To compare him with the previous most famous prodigy Jan Kubelík (1880-1940) or even with his contemporary Franz von Vecsey, is to realise how far Elman advanced violin tone production. If we listen to the greatest Russian violinists of the Edwardian era, Karol Gregorowicz (1867-1921), we hear a nineteenth-century tone and technique, albeit of transcendent virtuosity. Elman would never match Gregorowicz technically but tonally he was the new man. Fritz Kreisler was doing something similar, from a Viennese perspective, but Elman had never heard Kreisler when he instinctively began to develop his own tonal profile.

Born the son of a melamed (teacher of Hebrew) at Talnoye near Kiev on 20th January, 1891, he was given his first lessons at four by his father Saul; but a more potent early influence was the superb sound made on the fiddle by his grandfather, a klezmer or semi-itinerant Jewish folk musician. The strange truth was, as Elman admitted in a 1904 interview, that he never actually heard his grandfather play but acquired the influence at second hand from a gipsy who had often heard his grandfather. It seems the Elman tone flowered in its essentials when he was only five, since a wealthy countess offered to sponsor him if he would become a Christian. His father refused and managed to get him into the Royal Music School in Odessa, where he was taught by Alexander Fidelman, a pupil of Auer and Brodsky. When he was eleven, his father engineered an impromptu audition with Auer; and as the violinist and critic Henry Roth has argued persuasively, the great pedagogue probably learnt as much from the boy as Mischa did from him - even Auer had never heard such a sound. Strings were pulled to allow a Jewish student into the forbidden city of St Petersburg and from January 1903 Elman studied with Auer at the Conservatory there, also taking a harmony course with César Cui; but after fourteen he had no formal training and he never made up for a basic lack of education. He had sensational débuts in Berlin in 1904, London in 1905, with the Glazunov Concerto and New York in 1908; up to 1911 he was based in London but then settled in America, taking citizenship in 1923. During the Great War he organized a string quartet with which he made exquisite records. He toured the Far East in 1920-1921 and five years later organised his second string quartet, which like the first played beautifully but was too much dominated by him. In the 1936-1937 season he gave five major recitals in Carnegie Hall and in 1943 he premièred MartinÛ’s Second Concerto. Until the explosion of Heifetz on to the scene in 1917, the diminutive Elman had been the top violinist; but by the 1920s he was already beginning to sound old-fashioned, and after World War II he seemed to be a dinosaur from a vanished Romantic age. To his credit, he never tried to be anything but himself. He kept working, rehearsing on the day he died in New York, 5th April 1967, and, especially among the Jewish community, his name retained its old magic through the warmth and sincerity of his music-making. He played a magnificent Stradivarius, which had belonged to Madame Récamier and one of Napoleon’s generals.

For a man of his eminence, Elman made few concerto records in the 78rpm era. The Bach Concerto in E major and Vivaldi-Nachez Concerto in G minor were endearingly played, with the ornaments always beautifully placed within the musical line - the Elman trill was an object of wonder in itself, capable of infinite variation — but the public really wanted to hear him in Romantic music, where he could deploy his tonal riches. Like all the Auer pupils he had a superb vibrato and it was second only to Kreisler’s in its expressiveness. His famous 1929 HMV set of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto suffered in some quarters because Huberman had got in first on the rival Columbia label, and whereas the Polish violinist played the original score, albeit slightly cut, Elman naturally opted for the slightly modified Auer version. Nevertheless his full-hearted interpretation always had its admirers, who were prepared to put up with his little indulgences, and many were disappointed that the set was ousted from the catalogue after Heifetz recorded the work for HMV with the same conductor in 1937. After all, Elman’s version had the advantage of the superb Queen’s Hall acoustic, lost for ever when the building was bombed in World War II. In spite of having a considerable technique and a good sense of rhythm, Elman shone in the slower sections of the virtuoso repertoire rather than the fireworks. He always seemed able to make a little room for himself to expand a phrase or linger over a note. There are many examples in the works on this disc and it must have helped the soloist to have practical musicians conducting all three pieces — Barbirolli was a cellist and Nathaniel Shilkret, Elman’s partner in the Sérénade melancolique, was an old Victor hand who had started as a clarinettist and had done just about everything a musician could do in the studio. Likewise this rendition of Wieniawski’s Concerto in D minor was directed by Polish-born Alexander Hilsberg, a later Auer pupil who was concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for twenty years from 1931. Since 1936 he had been conducting his colleagues in their outdoor summer concerts at Robin Hood Dell, in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, which explains the exotic title assumed for contractual reasons by the orchestra for its summer sessions, and in 1945 he had been appointed assistant conductor. Hilsberg, an imaginative maestro with his own staunch following, had some personal touches to offer in a concerto he must often have played himself; and Elman’s glowing, luscious interpretation of the solo part turned out quite different from Heifetz’s, a reminder that great artists make their own rules.

Tully Potter

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

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