Notes and Editorial Reviews
MICHAEL RABIN: THE UNPUBLISHED RECORDINGS, 1947, 1949, 1961, 1964, 1970, & 1971
Michael Rabin (vn); Jeanne Rabin, Brooks Smith, Grant Johannesen (pn); Zoltán Rozsnyai, cond; San Diego SO
TESTAMENT 1470 (3CDs: 209: 49) Live: Providence 12/14/1947; Broadcast: 2/26/1970, 2/25/1971,
Caprices: No. 11; No. 17; No. 24; No. 5 (2 versions).
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.
Schön Rosmarin. Timbourin chinois. La Chasse.
Solo Violin Partita No. 2:
Banjo and Fiddle
La Fille aux cheveux de lin.
Introduction and Tarantelle.
La vida breve:
Vogel als Prophet.
Nocturne in E?.
Polonaise No. 1.
Why such a massive headnote? Well, for those who revere Michael Rabin’s memory, the headnote will be all that’s necessary. In what may be the last installment in a series of recordings by the young master of the bow (young, even when he had reached his maturity), Testament presents new items, many virtually from the family’s closet, provided by his sister, Bertine. The first CD in the collection begins with a concert Michael (not yet Rabin, perhaps) gave with his reputedly formidable (though not, it appears, as a pianist) mother at the piano on December 14, 1947, at the Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island. Their program opened with Eduard Lalo’s
in its four-movement form (as violinists often played it). Rabin attacks the opening measures with the aplomb of a soloist, and if he might not yet sound so fully in command (surprise: He’s not note-perfect) as he would later be, and even if he occasionally sounds hoarse in the upper registers of the G string of the Amati violin lent to him by Rembert Wurlitzer, it’s possible to scribe a straight line from this 11-year-old’s performance to the truly astonishing one he gave of several of Paganini’s caprices in the studio several years later for Columbia. Michael sounds like Rabin, however, in the slow movement, which he plays meltingly, with the glowing tone for which he’d later become known. In moments like these he’s perhaps the most astonishing. But he also plays four of Paganini’s caprices (Nos. 11, 17, 24, and 5), inviting comparison with the electrifying performances he’d record so soon. They’re not yet mastered at that level of perfection (and the recorded sound makes him seem to play less prepossessingly even tonally than he probably did); he doesn’t play the 24th, for example, with the same slashing efficiency as he would later, and he gets tangled in the 17th (of course, who doesn’t?). The Fifth fares better: He’s breathtaking in the opening and closing sections, but also in the middle one, which he takes—as he always would—spiccato rather than with Paganini’s indicated bowing. A wit might jest, “What could be wrong that several years of 10-hour days couldn’t fix?” Well, they did. In Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, he sounds less committed, hardly producing the ruddy Spanish campfire glow he’d impart to the work later in his career. This performance sounds drier, cast perhaps in the mold of the violinist he emulated, Jascha Heifetz. He makes musical sense in Fritz Kreisler’s
, no mean feat, since not every violinist exhibited an affinity for the composer. The program draws to a close with Heinrich Schalit’s
Serenade after a Jewish Folk Song
. Testament has transferred these pieces from two monaural tapes. How do these recordings compare to those allegedly made by Jascha Heifetz in Russia at the age of about 11 (depending on the story about his mother advancing his birthdate by one year; he made the recordings in 1911)? It’s hard to tell, because the Russian discs come from 1911 and so don’t reveal much of Heifetz’s characteristic tone production (if that could be discerned even in live performance at the time), but he certainly took risks (not perhaps for him) with breakneck tempos and his articulation had some of his notable crackle and snap. (These early recordings appear on Doremi 7727,
24:3). In any case, Heifetz recorded less challenging repertoire than Rabin played live at about the same age, and that’s not much to say.
Then comes a special treat: Rabin’s audition on May 20, 1949, for the Edgar Stillman-Kelley Award (which he won). His audition program included what the booklet calls an “excerpt” from the first movement of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto—but at 11 minutes, it’s substantially more than that. Here, not two years beyond the Providence recital, he sounds considerably more mature musically and more polished as a technician. Three movements (Allemanda, Corrente, and Giga) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Second Solo Violin Partita follow, with Rabin playing, if not in a manner that’s now accepted as historically correct, yet with a polish and insight that would have made a commercial recording highly respectable at the time. The Corrente and the Giga possess the kind of straightforward verve listeners can find in Nathan Milstein’s first set from 1956 (which Milstein hadn’t yet recorded!), although Rabin may even seem to some of those who can listen through the noise to outdo Milstein in rhythmic vitality in the Corrente. He pushes forward in William Kroll’s
Banjo and Fiddle
, relaxing for the slinky middle section. The program ends with Paganini’s Fifth Caprice, in which he already sizzled in 1947. He’s even hotter in 1949. The Fifth, with its swooping runs surrounding a crackling spiccato middle section, always seemed like one of his specialties.
The second disc features stereo recordings for EMI made on January 3, 1961, with a pianist identified by biographer Anthony Feinstein’s customarily insightful and compendious booklet notes as Brooks Smith. Here’s Rabin in top form in a recording EMI chose not to release. Why? Rabin’s combination of precision with panache creates excitement of its own in Antonín Dvo?ák’s
op. 72/2. He played Kreisler’s
on Milton Berle’s show in 1951 (Berle called him “one of the wonders of show business”), and it hardly sounds more incisive years later in this studio recording. Still, an occasional portamento lends his reading a drawing-room elegance that, while it may not be
-Kreisler, nevertheless sounds appropriate and effective. Rabin is suggestive—almost sultry—in Debussy’s
Girl with the Flaxen Hair
in Arthur Hartmann’s famous arrangement, and he’s curbed his tendency to rush in Kroll’s
Banjo and Fiddle
(although he still takes the framing sections lickety-split, they always seem superbly controlled). Pablo de Sarasate’s blockbuster Introduction and Tarantelle, in Rabin’s reading, provides a high-voltage jolt in what might have been intended for the end of the first side of an LP release, even if Rabin’s reading doesn’t quite match Milstein’s in rhythmic subtlety. The young violinist sounds bracing in Manuel de Falla’s
No. 1; insinuating (as Zino Francescatti did) in Heifetz’s arrangement of Robert Schumann’s
Vogel als Prophet
; virtuosic in Kreisler’s relatively infrequently played miniature
; warmly expressive in Sarasate’s arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne, op. 9/2, with its quicksilver ornamental passages; and finally, dashing (though perhaps not by a smidgen so dashing as Milstein) in Henri Wieniawski’s First Polonaise.
The second disc also includes a monaural studio recording of John Alden Carpenter’s Violin Sonata with pianist Grant Johannesen from about 1964 and released on a Golden Crest LP. The somewhat cavernous recorded sound doesn’t reveal much of a problem in his tone production at the time, although his vibrato sounds slower than normal in the first movement. He and Johannesen slash confidently in the second movement, and Rabin makes ample use of left-hand expressive devices in the third. The duo brings a heady exuberance to the finale. By comparison, Sergiu Schwartz and Paul Posnak (Naxos 8.559103,
27:5) seem more willing to allow Carpenter’s rhetoric to unwind with greater eloquence in the first movement, with less jagged articulation in the second, and with more redolent atmosphere (though not necessarily more expressively) in the third, although with somewhat diminished exuberance in the fourth. Those who prefer high virtuoso spirits might prefer Rabin’s reading if the original monaural recorded sound didn’t weigh against it.
Of course, the big question about Rabin has always centered on whether he could have resumed his career, and two concerto performances from February 1970 and February 1971 may help at last to sketch an answer. That answer begins to reveal itself with Rabin’s strong-minded entrance in Brahms’s concerto, and gains credence as the movement unfolds. Doremi’s second volume devoted to Rabin includes another performance of Brahms’s concerto, from the Ravinia Festival on November 3, 1967, with Rafael Kubelík conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Doremi 7951-3,
33:1). In the 1970 reading, Rabin experiences only very minimal difficulties in the first movement’s cadenza, soars with commanding urgency in the second, and plays the finale monumentally. As Feinstein points out, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra isn’t the Philharmonia, especially, perhaps, in the first movement’s craggy tuttis, but Rabin springs off their diving board just as effectively. The timings of the movements haven’t changed much between 1967 and 1970, but Rabin’s overall control of the bow and the rich imagination of his dynamic nuance seem more assured throughout the later reading. Max Bruch’s
has been said to be Heifetz’s favorite concerto, and Rabin made an early recording of it with Adrian Boult in 1957. The one from 1971 seems at the same time more atmospheric (especially in the opening measures) not only than Rabin’s earlier recording but than Heifetz’s (at least the second one) as well, and even perhaps more penetrating, so it’s a shame the engineers occasionally allowed him to drown in the orchestral sound. In the second movement, too, Rabin sounds very occasionally to be drowning, even in the double-stopped thematic material, though he plays with greater maturity than in 1957. The third movement brings portamento shifting that seems almost exaggerated, even for a violinist of Rabin’s expressivity; but he also sounds somewhat ill at ease in it, even if fits and spells pass as quickly as they occur. The finale sounds more clean and keen (and even, in technical passages, more lively) than does the earlier studio version; but, once again, occasional patches of questionable intonation mar what might have otherwise represented a confident advance beyond the recordings of his teenage years. Conductor Zoltán Rozsnyai sent the tapes of the concertos to Rabin’s parents after their son’s death and Bertine Rabin Lafayette provided them to Testament.
In the concertos, as well as in the hitherto unreleased EMI recording, Rabin’s tone sounds edgy, but that highly stropped razor may be due as much to EMI’s remastering process (I noted in reviewing both EMI’s and Testament’s rerelease of EMI’s six-disc set that Testament’s version, attributed to 2011, sounds a bit clearer and a bit edgier) as to any change in Rabin’s manner of tone production in later years. Testament’s collection of “the first, last, and hidden recordings” should quickly assume a place of the greatest importance for Rabin’s devotees, who should snap them up for the examples of all three periods represented, but also for general listeners, who should especially treasure EMI’s unreleased recording and Rabin’s last version of Brahms’s concerto. Most urgently recommended to all.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Schön Rosmarin by Fritz Kreisler
Michael Rabin (Violin)
Banjo and Fiddle by William Kroll
Michael Rabin (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Be the first to review this title