Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Concerto. Serenade No. 2 in A
Ernest Bour, cond; Zino Francescatti (vn); SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg
HÄNSSLER 94.219 (72:07)
Readers should be aware that when multiple reviews of the same release appear back-to-back in the magazine, copies of those recordings are sent to the contributing reviewers blind. This means we don’t know when or if a colleague might be submitting an opposing opinion and, if so, who that colleague might be. In this case, however, I think I can make a pretty
good guess that this release also went out to Robert Maxham and, based on our usually differing views about violinists and violin playing, plus what he’s said about Zino Francescatti in past reviews, I can almost guarantee the reader two quite different takes on this performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
First, let me say that of Francescatti’s recordings I’ve heard—admittedly not that many—there’s only one I really liked and would have recommended, had I been reviewing for
back then. That was his 1959 recording of the Brahms “Double” Concerto with cellist Pierre Fournier and Bruno Walter leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Among my disliked Francescatti recordings was his Paganini First Concerto with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, coupled with a Saint-Saëns Third Concerto with Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra.
It’s hard to say exactly what turned me off Francescatti’s playing early on. It was at a time in the late 1950s, shortly after I first started learning the violin and listening to recordings that my ideas of what constituted ideal violin playing were being formed. Francescatti was touted as a virtuoso extraordinaire, a technician of such redoubtable accomplishment that he was compared favorably to Heifetz. Yet what I heard when I listened to Francescatti was a rich, silken tone that often turned hard and abrasive in technically challenging passages. More disturbing, though I couldn’t have verbalized it at the time, was what I now regard as a laissez-faire approach to rapid passagework—a sort of “close enough for government work” attitude, in which harmonics were missed, runs were uneven, and notes were often sloughed off. To my ear, Francescatti lacked the self-discipline of Heifetz and Milstein and the discretion of Oistrakh in knowing when to resist risk-taking that exceeded one’s limits.
Second, all of this may be of little relevance because—though Francescatti’s discography is probably more extensive than current listings would suggest—Columbia Records, the label for which Francescatti mainly recorded, decided that Isaac Stern was the more saleable violinist, thus curtailing Francescatti’s exposure on record, at least to American audiences.
Counting this current Hänssler release, to the best of my knowledge, there are five Francescatti versions of the Brahms concerto on record, all of them commercially available on CD. Compared to Oistrakh’s 15 recordings, documented in a 28:4 review, five seems like a modest number, but as suggested above, Francescatti may have been captured live in more performances of the work than are in general circulation; I don’t know. Of the five, however, this studio recording made in 1974 is the latest. The other four versions are Ormandy/Philadelphia, 1956 (mono); Mitropolous/Vienna Philharmonic, 1958 (mono); Bernstein/New York Philharmonic, 1961; and Leinsdorf/ORTF National Orchestra, 1969.
Francescatti was 72 when he joined Ernest Bour and SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg for this venture. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that his previously full-bodied tone has thinned a bit, and there seems to be a very slight but detectable right-hand tremor on sustained notes; listen carefully, for example, to the high A at bar 140. Also, some of the minor technical issues noted in his earlier recordings have now become real liabilities. The passage in chords beginning in bar 164, for instance, is choppily articulated and sounds a bit desperate in its grasping for the notes. Nonetheless, the violinist has lost none of his fearlessness in the face of danger. For a 28:4 review of Arabella Steinbacher’s Brahms, I plugged 24 versions of the concerto into a spreadsheet and then sorted them by timings. If I were to add this Francescatti performance to the mix, it wouldn’t be the fastest—at 36:03, that distinction still goes to Milstein with Fistoulari and the Philharmonia in a 1961 recording for EMI—but at 38:15, it ties Grumiaux’s 1958 recording with van Beinum and the Concertgebouw for seventh place on the list, still 15 seconds faster than Heifetz’s classic 1955 Reiner/Chicago account.
I hope I haven’t made this Francescatti Brahms sound worse than it is. If you’re willing to overlook a slip here, a mishap there, and a rough patch every now and then—all technical flaws which I believe were always present in Francescatti’s playing on earlier recordings—there are some nice things to be said of the performance as well. Conductor Bour and Francescatti share a rapturous vision of the score, bringing to it many moments of an almost ecstatic magnanimity. The lofty, angelic purity of Francescatti’s tone in the first movement’s post-cadenza measures (he plays the familiar Joachim cadenza, by the way) is absolutely transfixing.
So, even though I’ve expressed personal reservations about Francescatti’s playing in general, I acknowledge that he’s justly recognized as one of the 20th century’s great violinists, and I recommend this CD not just to Francescatti fans. Those who cherish Brahms’s Violin Concerto will also want this memento of what is probably the violinist’s last recorded performance of the work.
Brahms’s rustic, amiable A-Major Serenade is a generous addition to this already desirable disc, and considering it’s almost as long as the concerto, it would be ungenerous to call it filler. Ernest Bour is not a conductor I’ve had occasion to review before, but based on his contribution in the concerto and his reading of the serenade, I’d have to say that he has a real flair for Brahms. Unfortunately, Bour died in 2001, so we’re not likely to hear any more from him. But this is a glowing performance by a conductor and an orchestra on top form.
Sonically, both the concerto and the serenade are quite good, but the serenade, recorded four years later in 1978, is marginally better. It’s more open and has more air around it, which lends the serenade an appropriate outdoorsy atmosphere. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 77 by Johannes Brahms
Zino Francescatti (Violin)
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1878; Austria
Serenade no 2 in A major, Op. 16 by Johannes Brahms
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1858-1859; Germany
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