Mischa Elman (violin)
The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1939-45
Leopold Mittman, Vladimir Padwa (piano)
Biddulph 85043-2 [77]

Some deft footwork is necessary when restoring an artist’s recordings. Biddulph has selected perceptively, seeking out an area of Mischa Elman’s discography that has been overlooked for too long – his wartime RCA Victors.

The association with the label brought two French sonatas and a raft of genre pieces. He left behind two recordings of Fauré’s A minor sonata – this one, with Leopold Mittman and a later Decca with Joseph Seiger, by which time Elman’s tempi had become, like his tonal lustre, rather more pedestrian. Back here in 1941 enough of that warmth remains though his approach to rubato and elasticity of phrasing are inclined to be overindulgent – an Elman speciality – so that the music can sound devitalised from time to time. It is certainly un-Gallic, should that matter to you. There’s succulent lyricism in the Andante and ripe finger position changes, alongside some puckish phrasing in the Scherzo, though he’s inclined to Elmanize the music.

The other sonata is Debussy’s, from the following year. The opening movement is simply too slow to convey the music’s quiveringly firefly qualities and the fanciful element is downplayed. The other two movements are rather better but crucially transitions really only work at faster tempi and Elman was always far too big a personality to bend to these kinds of dictates. In this sonata my allegiances have always been with violinists such as Dubois and Francescatti. 

The remainder of the programme consists largely of repertoire staples he’d recorded several times before or was to do so again. His Mendelssohn is characteristically vibrant and Träumerei is something he’d recorded for Pathé back in 1908 and was to record three times for Victor between 1911 and 1929. Then this one, and the Decca. By contrast this is his only Grieg Album Leaf recording (Op.12 No.7, in the Hartmann arrangement) and the result is characterful and full of still-charismatic tone. Both Dvořák’s Humoresque – a little stiff and straight, perhaps, except in the lyric section – and Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs were recorded multiply down the decades.

He recorded his own arrangement of Fauré’s Après un rêve with a somewhat fanciful piano introduction and some over-emotive phrasing but then, that’s why we love Elman. This was also the only time he recorded Sibelius’ little Mazurka and similarly his only venture into Heifetz Land for Dinicu’s Hora staccato. Whilst he can’t reproduce Heifetz’s rapier incision and deadpan wit he doesn’t seek to and it’s pleasing to hear his own individual take on it. The last two pieces were glove-fit material. First there’s Bloch’s Nigun, richly emotive, and finally Achron’s Hebrew Melody which, whilst not quite in the Josef Hassid league is still excellent. As a klezmer-playing youth, brought up in a cantorial environment, this kind of material was in his blood.

So, this is an astute reclamation. The booklet has been well written by Wayne Kiley and comes with well reproduced photographs of the violinist and, as is now de rigeur from Biddulph, excellent, colour reproductions of his violin – front and back as well as two of the of the scroll of his ex-Récamier Strad. Finally, the transfers are pleasingly done.

Jonathan Woolf

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)      
Songs without Words; No.25 ‘May Breezes’, Op.62 No.1 (184/44) arr Kreisler
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen, Op.15: No.7 Träumerei (1838) arr Jensen
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Album Leaf, Op.12 No.7 arr Hartmann
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Thaïs: Méditation (1894)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Violin Sonata No.1 in A, Op.13 (1886)
Chansons, Op,7: No.1 Après un rêve (1878) arr Elman
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1917)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Pieces: Mazurka, Op.81 No.1 (1915)
Grigoraş Dinicu (1889-1949)
Hora staccato (1906) arr Heifetz
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Baal Shem Suite: Nigun (1923)
Joseph Achron (1886-1943)
Hebrew Melody, Op.33 (1911)