Robert Mann’s first notable teacher was Edouard Hurlimann of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. At eighteen he went to the Juilliard School to study violin with Edouard Déthier, composition with Bernard Wagenaar and Stefan Wolpe, and conducting with Edgar Schenkman. He later founded the renowned Juilliard String Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, which he led for some fifty years in performances of over 600 works (including c.100 premières).
As a composer Mann has produced more than thirty works for various instruments with spoken narrative, which he performs with his wife Lucy Rowan. Other works include a violin and piano duo, Lament for two violas and orchestra, and a string quartet.
Mann’s solo discography exhibits a significant interest in twentieth-century music. Bartók features prominently and is represented here by fine recordings of the Solo Sonata, Violin Sonata No. 1, and Contrasts, all from the 1950s. Mann, at the height of his powers, is an intelligent, thoughtful interpreter, well up to the cerebral challenges of these works and with almost unimpeachable technical security. Some dryness and a slightly scratchy high register in the Sonata No. 1 may be partly attributable to the dated sound engineering. The Solo Sonata (complete with the original score’s quarter tones) sounds rather better and shows an impressive command of shape, gesture and colour. Mann’s tone is in the modern mould: portamenti are rare, occurring in the more melodic phrases only as a light, fast gesture and clearly not an especially important element of his approach. Although vibrato is carefully controlled it can sound a little flaccid in higher positions and lower registers. More noticeable in a 1991 recording of the Carter Duo, this is one of very few stylistic changes over Mann’s career and, arguably, a sign of advancing years. Contrasts is clean, muscular and well paced with an iron command of technique, though marred by Drucker’s playing with rather noisy embouchure. The finale cadenza is managed at considerable pace.
From classical solo repertoire, Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 23 represents the remarkably consistent standard of Mann’s 1981 complete cycle. At conventional tempi he delivers a powerful, clean sound, a little hollow at times (again, maybe an engineering factor) but with clear articulation including the types of off-string staccato that are ubiquitous in modern practice. Some may find his rather wide vibrato—especially noticeable in higher registers—a little intrusive; nonetheless, these are fine and intelligent performances.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)