Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mischa Elman, Violinist

Listening to Mischa Elman with the “New Symphony Orchestra” playing a Vivaldi concerto (1931) prompts the thought that they do not play Vivaldi like that, any more. To which an ascetic academic would probably comment “thank goodness” and many others would say “more's the pity”. Elman came from a background where the fiddler's role was to enchant the listener, and I suspect Vivaldi would have nodded his head in approval and said “to hell with period practice!”

Mischa Elman (born 1881) came from the Leopold Auer stable in Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, he signed an exclusive recording deal with RCA in America, and RCA did not believe in duplicating repertoire so gave all the prime repertoire slots to its favourite exclusive violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Elman had to pick up the crumbs, so his recorded legacy is mainly bits and pieces, often recorded when he was past his prime. The earliest recording I have of him is in 1906; the latest 1966. He died in 1967, aged 76. The later recordings he made when, presumably released from his RCA contract in the 1950s, show the old Elman, but much of the fire and virtuosity are missing. I have long been a fan of Elman's violin playing; he is a violinist for lovers of the old Russian and central European school of violin playing (his grandfather was a klezmer violinist).

Mendelssohn's charming violin concerto plumbs no great musical or emotional depths and because of complete over-familiarity, it is no longer a work that holds my attention for the music alone. It can, however, hold my attention because of the violin playing, as it does in a 1947 recording of Elman with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Elman's violin sings! (Another recording of the work that I still enjoy is Yehudi Menuhin in 1938, with George Enescu conducting, one of Menuhin's last truly spontaneous recordings before the onset of the periods of fallibility). My Elman recordings are ones I shall never part with during my lifetime; he is always a tonic for lovers of violin playing.

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