ZINO FRANCESCATTI, VIOLIN: A TREASURY OF STUDIO RECORDINGS 1931-1955 • Zino Francescatti (vn); Robert Casadesus (pn);1,2,10,11,14 Guilet Quartet;1 Max Lanner (pn); 3,4 Artur Balsam (pn);Read more 5,7,8,9 Eugene Ormandy, cond;12 André Cluytens, cond;13 Philadelphia Orchestra; Le Grand O S Columbia; Maurice Fauré (pn);6 • MUSIC & ARTS 1260, mono (3 CDs: 225:52)
CHAUSSON 1Concerto in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. DEBUSSY 2Violin Sonata. 3La fille aux cheveux de lin (arr. Hartmann). 4Minstrels (arr. Hartmann). RAVEL 5Violin Sonata. 6Tzigane. 7Kaddish (arr. Garban). 8Pièce en forme de Habanera (arr. Catherine). 9Berceuse. FAURÉ Violin Sonatas: 10No. 1 in A; 11No. 2 in e. VIEUXTEMPS 12Violin Concerto No. 4. LALO 13Symphonie espagnole. FRANCK 14Violin Sonata
Of the recordings reissued on Music and Arts 1260, only Zino Francescatti’s performance of Henri Vieuxtemps’s Fourth Concerto, a landmark that nearly equals Jascha Heifetz’s earlier reading, has never appeared on CD. And since some of Sony’s CDs—like this one—haven’t been readily available in the United States, Music and Arts’ compilation offers treasures hitherto not easily available. The booklet includes an essay by Henry Roth from 1987 and a new discography by Jean-Michel Molkhou (January 2012), a useful resource for Francescatti’s admirers (there’s also a very informative and insightful bibliographic essay in French by the same writer).
The booklet provides the timings for the individual CDs as well as the tracks, but states the first CD’s total timing as 75:12, although it’s only 66:20. Be that as it may, the disc begins with Francescatti’s performance with Robert Casadesus and the Guilet Quartet (violinists Daniel Guilet and Bernard Robbins, violist Emanuel Vardi, and cellist Benar Heifetz) from 1954, originally released on LP as Columbia ML-4998. Francescatti’s plaintive lyricism in the first movement remains unaffected and unindulgent; the ensemble maintains the lustrous polish in the Sicilienne although Francescatti’s tone displays its hard edge (Henry Roth, on the contrary, called it “soft-grained”) that highlights the textures as they rise in intensity. The concerto (often given its French title, “Concert”) might tempt violinistic celebrities to engage their soloistic personalities, but Francescatti (and Casadesus) keep theirs in check. (Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, and Jacques Thibaud have all solved this problem in the concerto.) Francescatti’s only studio recording of Claude Debussy’s Sonata comes from 1946 and 1947, about the time he began recording for Columbia, according to the discography. Comparing it to Isaac Stern’s reading with Alexander Zakin from 1960, it seems less moist and more cleanly etched, especially perhaps in the second movement, in which Francescatti embodies the composer’s direction, fantasque è leger. The comparison’s poignant, because Stern seemed to replace him as Columbia’s darling in the 1960s, just as Francescatti had been adopted as Columbia’s answer to RCA’s Heifetz earlier on. If Joseph Szigeti made a (the?) definitive recording of Maurice Ravel’s Sonata, Francescatti’s with Artur Balsam from 1955 crackles with similar static electricity in the first movement, though Francescatti accentuates the climactic tremolo passages more heavily—and, of course, he projects more cohesive timbres and textures than Szigeti would in 1953 (how the older violinist could beat someone like Francescatti at his own game, while handicapped by a palsied vibrato, might be given as an example of spirit triumphing over matter). That greater tonal vibrancy helps Francescatti to pull even with Szigeti in the second, Blues, movement—and even to pull ahead at the final climax (in which he rises to an equally frenzied intensity) due to his greater tonal control. In the last movement, he and Balsam exhibit the same manic drive, with Francescatti’s accentuation, if anything, sharper and wittier than Szigeti’s.
The second disc brings performances of Gabriel Fauré’s two sonatas, which Francescatti and Casadesus recorded on September 22-23, 1953. Molkhou’s discography seems to have missed the release of these readings, which originally appeared on Columbia ML 5049, and on a CD by Urania 4252, which I reviewed in Fanfare 30:5. As I noted in the earlier review, Francescatti’s reading, more electric than Jacques Thibaud’s “incandescent” one from 1929 with Alfred Cortot or Heifetz’s “white-hot” one (either the performance from 1936 with Emanuel Bay or the later one with Brooks Smith from 1955 will serve the purposes of the comparison), “burns at a lower temperature,” but still manages to communicate “subtle nuance” in the first movement, to exude a “throaty ardor” in the second, to sound “kittenish” rather than “predatory” in the third, and to wax “by turns genially chatty and eloquently lyrical” in the finale. And, as I noted, Francescatti and Casadesus dig “with equal relish into the more abstract Second Sonata,” projecting the slow movement “as they would a laser beam but with unmistakable personality that no mere light stream could ever exhibit.” But the prize of the second disc for collectors must be Francescatti’s majestic recording of Vieuxtemps’s Fourth Concerto. Heifetz recorded the piece, supposedly Vieuxtemps’s personal favorite, in 1935 with John Barbirolli and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, truncating the symphonic opening tutti—in a show-stopping display of bravura that might have discouraged any later violinists from following in his footsteps, perhaps forever. But Francescatti enjoyed the sonorous support of the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinist-conductor Eugene Ormandy, and more modern recording techniques. Itzhak Perlman and even the coruscating Alexander Markov just haven’t bested him (or Heifetz, for that matter), although some may feel that the Franco-Belgian Arthur Grumiaux came very close. But Grumiaux, however commanding, hardly equals Francescatti’s Paganini-like brilliance (and, after all, Francescatti traced his lineage directly to Nicolò Paganini—through his father, who studied with Camillo Sivori—just as Vieuxtemps himself heard and imitated Paganini). Those who have been left with a worn-out LP can now listen to Francescatti in a clear and present way that eroded vinyl surfaces could only faintly suggest.
The third disc opens with Francescatti’s first recording of Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, in its four-movement form, which used to be regularly recorded (Heifetz still played it that way in both 1950 with Walter Susskind, which HMV apparently didn’t publish—it’s not included in Sony’s “Complete Album Collection”—and in 1951 with William Steinberg, and so did Mischa Elman, as late as 1959 when he recorded it for Vanguard). The recorded sound, lively for its era, faithfully transmits Francescatti’s seductively sumptuous tone and represents the orchestra with surprising richness. The performance, commanding and tonally rich in the first movement, smolderingly idiomatic in the second (with lots of rhythmic flexibility), nobly lyrical in the third, and sparkling in the fourth, consistently showcases as well Francescatti’s flexible, highly individual phrasing. Pearl transferred the recording onto GEMM 9250, but those who prefer more aggressive intervention (removing noise and adding body to the orchestral sound, though also stropping a somewhat sharper edge on the soloist’s tone) will also likely prefer Music and Arts’ transfer. There follows Francescatti’s recording from 1947 with Robert Casadesus of César Franck’s Sonata. This also appeared on the above-mentioned Pearl CD, as well as on Urania’s (with Fauré’s two sonatas, SP 4252, Fanfare 30:5). Reviewing that Urania CD, I called attention to Francescatti’s greater fastidiousness in this work (compared, at least, to Stern, David Oistrakh, Perlman, or Thibaud)—Francescatti remains meticulous even when he’s only accompanying. Again, compared to Pearl’s remastering, Music and Arts’ should appeal to those who prefer not to listen to surface noise, while Urania’s seems even more cleanly scrubbed. The rest of the disc offers a collection of short(er) pieces, beginning with Ravel’s blockbuster, Tzigane. Since Francescatti played it on tour with the composer, I’ve always taken his performances as authoritative and a model for my teaching. This one, his first recorded reading with piano, from 1931 with Maurice Fauré, seems highly expressive, technically sharp, and reminiscent of the work’s origins in Gypsy improvisations, maybe even more so than some later ones. As Artur Balsam would later do, Fauré makes brief cuts in the accompaniment, although not the same ones. But that doesn’t entirely account for the short timing of 8: 50—Francescatti’s virtuosity also moves things along. Thereafter, the pieces grow shorter, beginning with three by Ravel—a Kaddish that will strike listeners either as surprisingly Semitic or as surprisingly un-Semitic, an elusive but suggestive reading of Pièce en forme de Habanera, and a Berceuse that’s more vibrant than Nathan Milstein’s reading of the same piece with Leon Pommers, but equally haunting. All these come from 1955, with Artur Balsam, Columbia LP ML-5058, which also included Ravel’s sonata. Francescatti recorded the final two numbers, Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels, with Max Lanner in 1946—formerly available on Columbia LP ML-4310. They also appeared on Pearl’s collection, but they sound clean and fresh here (although, in the case of La fille, the cleaning didn’t involve heavy scrubbing).
What would I take with me to a near-desert isle? Depending on the length of the stay, I might choose either the longer complete Heifetz set or this shorter one of Francescatti. There can be no higher recommendation.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Subtitled ‘A treasury of studio recordings, 1931-35’ this 3 CD set is priced as two. Not only that, but it has been cannily selected to entice those yet to experience Zino Francescatti’s art as well as those for whom some gap-filling is the order of the day.
Almost everything here is a major chamber or concerto statement. Chausson’s Concert was recorded in 1954 with Robert Casadesus and the Guilet Quartet. As might have been predicted, it proves a technically cleaner and more precisely calibrated reading than the more heated, almost contemporaneous account by Louis Kaufman, Artur Balsam and the Pascal Quartet, currently to be found on Forgotten Records. Francescatti is not as spotlit as Kaufman, nor are his expressive responses as obviously wide. There’s lovely lissom phrasing in the
Sicilienne and a well judged
Grave. Violinist and pianist, long standing colleagues, join forces for a perfectly timed Debussy Sonata. Like the very greatest Franco-Belgian teams, Thibaud and Cortot, and Dubois and Maas, their tempi are very similar, arguing for a continuity of phrasing and an immediacy of projection. The tempo chosen, in all three cases, is fleet but never rushed. This was recorded in 1946, but the Ravel Sonata dates from 1955 in which Francescatti is joined by Balsam. The reading is suave, elegant, cosmopolitan in the Blues movement, and brilliantly articulated in the finale.
The second disc gives us both Fauré sonatas from September 1953. Hardly anyone at the time recorded No.2 which was recorded the day before the more popular work. He plays it with great concentration and assurance, ensuring that the central movement is flooded with serious lyricism. The A major is in the very best French traditions, though less effusively phrased than in the 78 set by his older compatriot Thibaud. A substantial concerto rounds out this second disc, Vieuxtemps’ Fourth in D minor with the luxurious casting of the Philadelphia Orchestra under their ex-fiddle playing conductor, Eugene Ormandy. This is meat and drink to the Frenchman, whose dashing instincts are roused into formidable virtuosity. Bel canto line is engaged in the slow movement, an
Adagio religioso of warmth but not over-perfumed breadth. Few have caught the elegant swagger of the finale better than he.
The final disc presents his
Symphonie espagnole with an anonymous Paris studio band directed by André Cluytens in November 1946. True, the
Intermezzo has been excised, as was often the case, most prominently from Russian players, but the playing itself is outstanding in conception and execution. True, again, it’s not as definably French in sound and ethos as the earlier 1932 recording of Henry Merckel [Music & Arts CD-1178] but there are some lovely and alluring slides in the
Rondo finale to ravish the ear. The 1947 Franck Sonata with Casadesus negotiates the pathway between patrician and emotive phrasing very well. It’s back to 1931 for the Ravel
Tzigane with Maurice Faure, to whose surname M&A mistakenly gives an accent on the back of the packaging; they get it right inside the booklet. This was chosen in preference to the later recording with Balsam and shows the younger Francescatti on ripe form, albeit in a chilly Paris studio. Balsam reappears for
Pièce en forme de Habanera and the
Berceuse sur le Nom de Fauré. The set ends with two sweetmeats from Debussy in 1946 performances with pianist Max Lanner.
A revision of the long essay that Henry Roth wrote on the violinist is reprinted, along with the violinist’s discography which makes for satisfying reading. Excellent transfers complete a fine contribution to the art of Francescatti on disc.
-- Jonathan Woolf , MusicWeb International Read less
Delicious masteryJune 20, 2017By Richard Goldman (Albany, NY)See All My Reviews"Francescatti was a beloved artist, prized for a rare combination of virtuosity, elegance, and warmth. All these gifts are richly displayed here, and he is working with artists of equal sensitivity and command such as Casadaseus. The sound is fine. Inimitable."Report Abuse
very great musicianMarch 23, 2014By Robert B. (Indianapolis, IN)See All My Reviews"Zino Francescatti, one of the very great violinists and musicians of the 20th C. In particular this recording of the Chausson Concerto for Violin, String Quartet and Piano has to be the best ever recorded. I have listened to several of the other recordings of it, including even Heifetz, and this one wins for me for interpretation and unique French elegance. I have the old Columbia LP, which was never re-issued on CD until Archiv Music did it."Report Abuse