Saturday, 16 February 2013

Karl Goldmark's Violin Concerto

Karl Goldmark wrote two violin concertos, though only one has been published [where's the other one?] The Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor of 1877 is a highly agreeable work, with gentle melodies and superb writing for the violin (Goldmark was a violinist). It was championed for some time by Nathan Milstein but, on the whole, it is a concerto that is mysteriously neglected by concert promoters, recording producers, and violinists. The classic recording is by Nathan Milstein with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 and, in many respects, this recording still stands at the head of the (fairly short) list of competitors, even after over half a century. Out of curiosity, I listened to three would-be runners-up: Nai-Yuan Hu with the Seattle Symphony orchestra under Gerard Schwarz; Vera Tsu with the “Razumovsky Sinfonia” under Yu Long; and Benjamin Schmid with the “Witold Lutoslawski Philharmonic, Wroclaw” under Daniel Raiskin.

At the start, it has to be noted that all three competitors are well worth hearing, but none can replace the 1957 Milstein. Both Hu and Schmid suffer from fairly indifferent orchestral backing; one senses that both the Poles and the Americans were not familiar with the work, and not too enthusiastic about playing it. Tsu with her Slovakian orchestra is much better served, with the orchestra having a good rhythmic swing when required. Hu has a truly lovely violin sound and is a fine player, but he is apt to slam on the brakes whenever the music becomes sentimental, and he also plays the last movement's extended cadenza without a cut (everyone else, wisely, makes a cut); it seems to go on for ever. Hu is also a bit deficient about allowing much dynamic range to his magnificent del Gesù violin. The always admirable Benjamin Schmid gains full marks for keeping things moving; his timings are roughly the same as Milstein's (though Milstein makes cuts in the finale that brings his overall timing down).

In some ways, Vera Tsu with her Slovakian players is my favourite of the three contestants. She has an excellent dynamic range and makes a lovely sound, which is important in this gentle, genial concerto. She captures well the wistful melancholy that lies at the heart of much of the music, and she is also an excellent violinist (as are the other two). Her main weak point is the familiar one with many post-war musicians: the belief that playing sentimental music very slowly makes it sound deeper and more profound. Wrong. Music needs to keep moving. When Goldmark says his slow movement should be played “andante” he knew that andante was connected with the Italian verb andare [to go], and that andante means strolling along. Miss Tsu does not stroll; she crawls, and ends up taking 7:40 against Milstein's 5:57. She is even worse in the Korngold concerto that is also on her CD, where the andante movement takes forever and a day at 8:27, sometimes not seeming to move at all. These things should have been corrected in music school. Musicians as diverse as Toscanini and Beecham knew that the more fragile the music, the more the need to keep it moving and not to drag. Vera Tsu plays very slowly very beautifully, and with admirable concentration. But the tempo in slower passages is just wrong for this kind of music.

Of the older generation of violinists apart from Milstein, Peter Rybar and Bronislav Gimpel played and recorded the work. Of the younger generation, there are Joshua Bell and Sarah Chang (who is just as slow as Tsu in the andante, and whose EMI recording is not of the best). Until another really well played, well accompanied and well recorded version comes along, I am happy with the 1957 Nathan Milstein and 1995 Vera Tsu (Naxos).

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