About this Recording
8.111349 - MOZART, W.A.: Violin Concerto No. 3 / BRAHMS, J.: Violin Concerto (de Vito, Beecham, van Kempen) (1941, 1949)

Great Violinists • Gioconda De Vito
MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216 • BRAHMS: Violin Concerto Op. 77


A key figure in the rinascimento of Italian string playing after 1945 was the violinist Gioconda De Vito. Although she did not have any well-known pupils, she led by example and contributed to the stream of superb soloists and ensembles emanating from Italy in the past sixty years. The birthplace of great violinism had fallen on lean times by 1901, when the cellist Alfredo Piatti died. Concentration on opera had left few resources for cultivating instrumental music and only two violinists, Arrigo Serato and the short-lived Alfredo d’Ambrosio, acquired a reputation in the early twentieth century. Serato was one of the teachers whose efforts turned the tide: others were Rémy Principe and the Crepax brothers (violinist Attilio, violist Oscaro, cellist Gilberto), as well as violist Renzo Sabatini and cellist Arturo Bonucci. Significantly De Vito studied with two of these pedagogues. World War II prevented a full international career—despite tempting offers, she never played in America—but she was a leading European soloist in the 1950s and, with her pleasing platform manner, was much loved by audiences for what the violist Luciano Iorio called ‘her great expression of feeling, the way she threw herself emotionally into everything she played’.

She was born on 26 July 1907 at Martina Franca, a wine-producing hillside town in the heel of Italy—her parents had their own vintage. It was a musical family: elder sister Elvira was a pianist and Gioconda took up the mandolin at three, mastering numerous operatic melodies. Fascinated by the playing of her maternal uncle Francesco Del Giudice, a professional violinist who worked in Germany, she begged her mother to let her learn his instrument. When she was eight, the conductor of the municipal band agreed to give her lessons in violin and theory and after six months, on her uncle’s return from a lengthy trip abroad, she played him Charles de Bériot’s Ninth Concerto. He then taught her for two and a half years. Full-time study began with Attilio Crepax at the Conservatorio di Musica Rossini in Pesaro; and she had a year in Rémy Principe’s class, taking her diploma in 1921, before Principe left for Rome. In Pesaro she gave her first concert, with Elvira at the piano, and at sixteen she made her Rome début in the Teatro Argentina, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Mario Rossi conducting. In Turin she performed Bach’s Double Concerto with Principe.

At seventeen De Vito was appointed professor at the new Conservatorio in Bari, where most of her pupils were older than she. On 18 March 1931 she broadcast a typical programme from Rome: G. Sammartini, Pastorale; Vivaldi-Nachez, G minor Concerto, Op. 12/1; Paganini, Caprice No. 20; Tchaikovsky, Concerto. In 1932 she won the international competition in Vienna, amazing the jury of Sergei Koussevitzky, Jan Kubelík, Arnold Rosé, Clemens Krauss and Jenö Hubay with the maturity of her Bach interpretations—having ignored Nathan Milstein’s advice to stick to Paganini. After she had played the Chaconne, Kubelík walked onto the platform and kissed her hand. Her Paris début in 1934 prompted Henry Prunières to write of ‘startling technique put to the service of a magnificent style and a real temperament of virtuoso’ (The New York Times). On 27 October 1938 she made her Berlin Philharmonic bow with Viotti’s A minor Concerto, conducted by Max Fiedler. During the 1930s she combined concert-giving with teaching in Bari, Palermo and Rome, where she was a professor at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia from 1935. Mussolini, himself a violinist, wanted to give her a Stradivarius. ‘But my mother, who was a very moral person, said: “You cannot accept something so valuable from a man.”’ Among the beautiful violins used by De Vito would be the 1723 ‘Tuscan’ Strad loaned to her by the state in 1953. High points of her Italian career were having Pizzetti dedicate a concerto to her in 1945 and playing twice before Pope Pius XII, a keen amateur fiddler. At Castel Gandolfo in 1953 she performed Brahms’s G major Sonata for His Holiness—who had requested this composer—with Wilhelm Furtwängler at the piano (one of four appearances she made with the conductor). In 1957 she played the Mendelssohn Concerto at the Vatican, confiding to the Pontiff that she was thinking of retiring, as she had seen too many artists carry on too long. Inviting her back that week, he spent an hour persuading her that it was too early to turn her back on a God-given talent. She decided to soldier on, bolstered by a letter from a listener to the Vatican broadcast: he had been an atheist but during Mendelssohn’s Andante had become convinced there must be some supreme power.

Gioconda De Vito made a flying visit to London in 1939 to buy a violin but the war prevented a planned début. When she came back in 1947—to make records, including one with the soprano Gabriella Gatti—she was a mature artist and caused a sensation at Abbey Road Studios. Her first British concert was at the Royal Albert Hall on 29 April 1948, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Victor De Sabata. As she had at so many débuts (including Leipzig in 1943), she played the Brahms Concerto and according to The Times: ‘The intensity of imagination, coupled with the strong, clear tone and faultless technique […] proved her to be a violinist of the front rank.’ The following year she married David Bicknell, head of HMV, and settled in this country. She appeared at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1948 (Beethoven Triple Concerto with Michelangeli, Mainardi and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra under Furtwängler), 1951 (Mendelssohn Concerto) and 1953 (Four Centuries of the Violin, a series with Menuhin, Rostal and Stern). In 1958 De Vito served on the jury of the first Tchaikovsky Competition, giving recitals in Moscow and Leningrad; and the next year she visited Israel for the Beethoven Concerto in Jerusalem and the Brahms in Tel Aviv. She returned to Edinburgh in 1960, the year she toured Australia, playing in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide—and giving a recital in Bombay on the way home. She retired in 1961 while still at her best. Her last British concert took place in Swansea in October and her last of all, at Basel in November. There were to be no comebacks: she virtually gave up music, taking few pupils and rarely travelling up to London to hear a concert. She lived happily in retirement with her husband until he died in 1988; thereafter she divided her time between their cottage at Rickmansworth and the flat she shared with her sister in Rome, where she died on 14 October 1994. She loved animals and the garden of Trout Stream Cottage was a haven for wildlife —birds, squirrels, two swans, innumerable ducks. She even made friends with a mouse. ‘He has such bright eyes. I wouldn’t harm him—after all, God made him.’

Of modern music, Gioconda De Vito programmed works by Italians such as Casella, Pizzetti and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. She did not have a vast repertoire, as she liked to feel right inside a piece before performing it. She never referred to other interpretations in studying a score, preferring to come to it fresh. Her recording career began in the 1930s, with two discs for Edison Bell and Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with Zecchi, Tassinari and the RAI Rome Orchestra under Previtali for Cetra. Then in 1941 came the first of two versions she made of her major war-horse, the Brahms Concerto, done for Deutsche Grammophon with the ‘Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses, Berlin’ under the Dutch conductor Paul van Kempen (1893–1955). With her broad phrasing, ample tone and wide-ish vibrato, De Vito always excelled in Brahms; and this performance, while virtually identical to her 1953 account in the Adagio and finale, is a little faster and more cohesive in the opening Allegro non troppo. She plays the usual Joachim cadenza; but in Mozart’s G major Concerto from 1949, with Sir Thomas Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic, she gives us Donald Francis Tovey’s cadenza (for her remake with Rafael Kubelík in 1959, she used cadenzas by Principe and Marteau). This was De Vito’s only Mozart concerto and it slightly divided the critics. Of the recording, Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote in The Observer: ‘She inclines to cuddle the music.’ But The Times reported of a 1948 rendering with Kubelík that ‘liquid tone, subtlety and flexibility of phrasing, acute perception, and complete technical control gave wings to the music.’ And Neville Cardus of The Manchester Guardian found her interpretation ‘extremely beautiful’ when he heard it in 1951, writing: ‘Gioconda De Vito’s playing was of a kind we do not expect to hear often in a lifetime. Every note was perfectly intoned and of individual life, yet as easefully and indivisibly belonging to the phrases of song as waves in a flowing sea. We could understand why grace-notes are so called; Miss De Vito gave to them a touch that stirred the ornamentation to little throbs of sensibility. The slow movement with its long notes which are the ordinary violinist’s terror and despair was quite heavenly.’

Tully Potter

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