elman tchaikovsky biddulph

Mischa Elman (violin)
Joseph Seiger (piano)
Robin Hood Dell Orchestra/Alexander Hilsberg
rec. September-October 1952, Victor Studio No.2, New York; June 1950, Philadelphia Academy of Music (concerto)
Biddulph 85031-2 [78]

Between September and October 1952, over five sessions, Mischa Elman and Joseph Sieger recorded a selection of pieces for RCA Victor. The Tchaikovsky element provided a degree of sentiment whilst Wieniawski demanded more brillante flourish from a violinist now in his very early 60s. The first he could just about still manage, the latter rather less so.

The years after the end of war swept away many an inter-war player but Elman still had an adoring coterie of admirers who relished his art. Even they, though, would have found it impossible to pretend that the molten tonalist of the teens and twenties of the century was still before them. Elman wasn’t, in any case, much helped by the RCA studio’s dry acoustic which limits resonance and tonal breadth. As befits an undemocratic old-school fiddler, Elman is recorded well in front of the conscientious Sieger. His Song without Words is appealing through lacking the tonal richness of old. His performance of the arrangement of the Andante cantabile from the String Quartet – this is his only ‘solo’ recording of it (the others were made with his string quartet) – is refined and not overdone, a valuable instance of his eloquent musicality. In the Tchaikovsky selection he reserves the greatest weight of expressive power for Valse sentimentale. The most awkward performance is that of the Waltz from the Serenade for Strings though it’s unusual enough to hear this as a solo vehicle; Leopold Auer, Elman’s teacher, made the arrangement. Of all these little pieces it’s the Russian Dance that allows Elman the most opportunities to display his elegance, warmth and vitality.

He can get around Wieniawski’s Légende but with far less digital ease than had been the case when he recorded it three decades earlier. His phrasing is still generous though it’s of a kind that was seen as anachronistic years before: Milstein is a minute quicker than Elman in the Mazurka in D and Kogan – at a similar tempo to Elman – accents in such a way that makes the older man sound static. In the Polonaise brillante he pursues his steady Elmanesque course and the lack of electricity, of élan, is palpable.

The companion concerto is Wieniawski’s Second in D minor with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra (i.e. the Philadelphia) under Alexander Hilsberg, another student of Auer, a recording made in 1950. I’ve written about this when it appeared on Naxos where it was coupled with Elman’s wonderfully communicative 1929 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Barbirolli. He was to go on to re-record the Wieniawski with Adrian Boult for Decca and whilst this was only a few years into the future (March 1956, to be exact) he had slowed significantly. After the large sequence of Deccas, Elman recorded for Vanguard and the inexorable decline continued, along with the bravery (or chutzpah, if you prefer) of recording things like the Khachaturian concerto.  

There’s not a great deal between the two transfers of the Wieniawski but I’d not come across the other RCAs on CD so they’re more than welcome, if also indices of Elman’s genteel decline.

Jonathan Woolf

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Souvenirs de Hapsal: Song Without Words, Book 1, Op.2 (1867) arr. Kreisler
Souvenir d’un lieu cher: Scherzo, Op.42 (1878) arr. Kreisler
String Quartet in D Major, Op.11; Andante cantabile (1871)
Morceau: Valse sentimentale, Op.51 No.6 (1882)
Serenade for Strings: Valse, Op.48 (1881)
Songs: None but the Lonely Heart, Op.6 (1869)
Morceaux: Russian Dance, Op.40 No. 10 (1878)
Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
Légende, Op. 17 (1860)
Mazurka in D Major Op.19 No.2 ‘Dudziarz’ (1860)
Mazurka in G major, Op.12 No.2 ‘Chanson polonaise’ (1853)
Mazurka in A minor ‘Kujawiak’ (1853)
Polonaise brillante No.1, Op.4 (1853)
Violin Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.22 (1862)