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Johanna Martzy Plays Mendelssohn & Brahms

Mendelssohn / Brahms / Martzy / Muller-kray / Wand
Release Date: 03/25/2014 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 94226   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Felix MendelssohnJohannes Brahms
Performer:  Johanna Martzy
Conductor:  Hans Müller-KrayGünter Wand
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 6 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in e 1. BRAHMS Violin Concerto 2 Johanna Martzy (vn); 1 Hans Müller-Kray, 2 Günter Wand, cond; Stuttgart RSO HÄNSSLER 94226 (65: 55)

These are not the same 1955 Mendelssohn and 1954 Brahms concertos by Johanna Martzy issued on Read more Testament 1037 and reviewed by David Nelson in 18:1. Those performances were with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki. The present Hänssler disc documents performances with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from February 1, 1959 (Mendelssohn) and February 6, 1964 (Brahms), led by Hans Müller-Kray and Günter Wand, respectively. I can’t speak for the Mendelssohn, but this is not the first time on CD for the Brahms (see below).

According to her bio, Martzy “hadn’t recorded commercially in decades” before her premature death in 1979, not yet aged 55. If that’s true, then this Brahms Concerto would have to be one of her very last recordings. Her recorded legacy—which includes a complete set of Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas—tops out at around two-dozen releases. If Martzy was short-lived, her active career was even shorter, for apparently it didn’t endure as long as she did, and this has posthumously transformed her into that curious phenomenon of “cult” figure.

Public personalities of all stripes are susceptible to being mythologized when they seek privacy and refuge from publicity and the prying eyes of adoring fans. Performing artists who choose for personal reasons to limit their concert appearances and to make few recordings are not infrequently elevated to legendary status merely by virtue of the very rarity of their available work. I say this with firsthand knowledge regarding Johanna Martzy. Someone I know is in the used LP business, and not long ago he told me that he had sold a rare copy of a live 1954 Martzy performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra on a mono Archiphon LP to a customer in Japan for $295.

If you fancy the Mendelssohn by Martzy and Klemperer, there’s an earlier 1951 performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony that has been transferred to a Memories Reverence CD, on which it’s coupled with the same 1964 Martzy/Wand Brahms performance that’s on the present Hänssler disc. But how many different labels and disc partners Martzy’s few recordings have seen is not the point. The point is that there is obviously a small number of buyers out there willing to pay ridiculously inflated sums of money for recordings by a violinist whose playing, while in most respects was very good, doesn’t make any list I’ve ever seen of the top 20 violinists of the 20th century. Now if a recording of Paganini somehow miraculous surfaced, that would be worth $295.

So why would anyone shell out that kind of money for a Martzy recording? My guess is for the same reason collectors buy rare paintings and antiques. They’re not necessarily art connoisseurs or knowledgeable music lovers; they have the money, and they collect for the sake of collecting, the rarer the item the better. Pity those who are party to the Martzy feeding frenzy, for their investments are not likely to appreciate in value. Besides, much if not most of what there is of Martzy on record has been transferred to CD, and can be had at quite modest prices by those of lesser financial means who can’t afford $295 for a record, and by those of sound mind who wouldn’t pay that kind of money for a record even if they could afford it.

Martzy’s Mendelssohn and Brahms on this disc remind me very much of Nathan Milstein in these works. The tone is highly refined and of a silvery sheen. Tempos are quite brisk and always pressing forward. Listeners who have grown accustomed to the rather slower tempos we hear these days in modern performances of these works, especially in the Brahms, may be taken aback at first by how fast Martzy’s readings are—a bit too fast for her own good in the last movement of the Brahms, if you ask me, resulting in some untidiness—but there’s an athletic, virile strength to these performances that offers a bracing alternative to some of the slower more recent versions.

To be compared to Milstein, who definitely does show up on the top 20 lists, is high praise indeed, and overall I do like Martzy’s performances in these two concertos. But I’d be remiss in my job if I failed to note the imperfections, especially in the later-recorded Brahms. In the Mendelssohn, I detect no sense of technical strain. Martzy is confident and poised throughout, projecting the familiar score with ease and a good deal of panache. Not every high note, though, is hit precisely in tune, something that’s especially noticeable in the exposed first-movement cadenza. In the more technically taxing Brahms, the intonation problems are more invasive, and now they’re accompanied by signs of technical stress, particularly as they affect rhythmic stability. You can hear it where Martzy’s beat becomes unsteady in direct proportion to the relative difficulty of certain passages she encounters. Understand that these are minor flaws that go by mostly unnoticed, and at these tempos, I imagine that many other “name” violinists would experience similar strain. Ultimately, Martzy is not Milstein, but she unquestionably holds her own in these very well-played readings.

The Stuttgart orchestra also plays beautifully for both conductors, and the remastering job on these vintage recordings has produced vivid sound and a sense of real acoustic bloom around the players. Recommended then, warts and all, for both historic value and for the especially well-produced transfers which reveal Johanna Martzy in such lifelike detail.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins    
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in E minor, Op. 64 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Johanna Martzy (Violin)
Conductor:  Hans Müller-Kray
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1844; Germany 
Date of Recording: 02/05/1959 
Venue:  Liederhalle Stuttgart 
Length: 26 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 77 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Johanna Martzy (Violin)
Conductor:  Günter Wand
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Austria 
Date of Recording: 02/06/1964 
Venue:  Liederhalle Stuttgart 
Length: 38 Minutes 21 Secs. 

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