October 3, 2012

Suggested Recordings: Korngold's Violin Concerto

Guest writer Gil French re-starts our blog with this guide to the finest recorded performances of Korngold's Violin Concerto, which the RPO performs live with James Ehnes on October 4 and 6. 

Korngold: Violin Concerto
James Ehnes; Bramwell Tovey, Vancouver Symphony
Onyx 4016 or CBC 5241
Anne-Sophie Mutter; Andre Previn, London Symphony
Deutsche Grammophon
Jascha Heifetz; Alfred Wallenstein, Los Angeles Philharmonic
RCA (mono)

What a great time I had really getting to know Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in depth by comparing seven different recordings! 

Korngold described the piece as “written for a Caruso rather than a Paganini,” and the long, supremely lyrical melodies transported me so fully that they really did make me want to sing. But I couldn’t hold the tunes in my head. Why, I wondered. They’re certainly not faceless. 

Only by looking at the score did I understand why: the meters constantly shift, and there are frequent tempo changes, retards, and accelerandos. The music also has the expansiveness of Mahler, but also the “open prairie” sound of American composers like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Korngold, after all, did spend a vast about of time in both Vienna and the US, especially Hollywood, where he gained fame writing scores in the 1930s and 1940s for Errol Flynn movies. Ah, but on the best recordings all these tempo and meter changes are completely seamless, and the flow utterly musical to such a degree that I craved more as I went from one recording to the next.

Two recordings reign supreme. (Now I’m not saying this just to be polite; when I did my comparative listening last March, I had completely forgotten that James Ehnes would be the soloist for this concert.) James Ehnes and Bramwell Tovey both bring out the Caruso element in all three movements. The flow is so marvelously sustained and the parts so ingeniously woven together that the shifts of tempo never show, never stagnate, and are always going somewhere. Ehnes’s role is self-evident, but Tovey is equally long-lined and lyrical, especially when such rich, warm, and transparent engineering lets all the inner details come though. This recording was originally released on CBC Records, which is since gone out of business; it has been reissued on the Onyx label.

I have to add, however, that Anne-Sophie Mutter and then-husband Andre Previn give Ehnes and Tovey a real run for their money. I would describe their style as not only Caruso-like but rhetorical, that is, so caught up in the inner language of the concerto that at times the rhythmic flow is so natural that Mutter is practically speaking. In the third movement she’s really more like Paganini--terribly exciting!--and, in truth, the orchestral and engineering qualities are even more remarkable.

Both recordings are quintessential and the choice is de gustibus. But for yet another exciting take, no one plays it like Jascha Heifetz. This is one of his best recordings. He’s not as romantic in the second-movement Romance as Ehnes or Mutter, and the monophonic sound muddies orchestral details; still, the early hi-fi pre-stereo sound is tolerably good. But oh! that sweet sweet sound of Heifetz. How did he get it? RPO Assistant Concertmaster Willy Deglans once told me he once saw a film of Heifetz with the sound slowed down seven times, at which point Heifetz’s vibrato was at the normal violinist’s rate. I never have understood how professional violinists can play so many notes so fast so accurately for so long—and especially Heifetz!

By the way, those other four recordings were by Gil Shaham and Andre Previn (Deutsche Grammophon), Nikolaj Znaider and Valery Gergiev (RCA), Chantal Juillet and John Mauceri (Decca), and Ulrike-Amina Mathe and Andrew Litton (Dorian). After starting my listening session with Ehnes and Tovey, none of these four could hold my attention for more than 10 minutes.

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