Classic Violin Concertos
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e, op. 64*
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, op. 35
Zino Francescatti, violin
*Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
New York Philharmonic/Thomas Schippers
Sony 82876-78760-2 Total time: 57:19
Summary for the Busy Executive: More from Sony's Great Performances
series, and it definitely lives up to the advertising.
Zino Francescatti (despite the Italian name, born in Marseilles) stands
as a distinguished representative of the French school of violinists.
As opposed to a Heifetz or a Stern, for example, Francescatti sang with
a tone lighter, cooler, and more lyrical. Today, I imagine the analogous
contrast as Vengerov vs. Hahn, although Hahn studied with Brodsky.
Currently, she's closer to Francescatti's playing than to Perlman's.
What with every pint-size Heifetz essaying the work, mainly because
it lies so well under the fingers, the Mendelssohn concerto threatens
to become the Rodney Dangerfield of the violin repertoire. By the way,
Heifetz himself first publically performed the concerto at age seven.
Francescatti and Szell rescue it from the prodigies and force the listener
to acknowledge a masterpiece. This concerto suits Francescatti's general
approach like oysters in gumbo. Though trouble disturbs the undercurrents
of the first movement, its overwhelming characteristics are clarity,
economy, and poise. Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra make the ideal
partners. This performance simply crackles with excitement - from
Francescatti's piercing tone and ensemble alertness to the orchestra's
rhythmic propulsive snap, particularly from the woodwinds. If Erick
Friedman and, believe it or not, Ozawa with the London Symphony count
as my favorite recording (not currently available) of the dozens I've
heard, Friedman is mainly the reason. He plays with an intensity that
burns into your soul. Nevertheless, Francescatti's is probably my
second-favorite account. I've loved it since I bought the original LP.
It hovers between Classical balance and Romantic ardor. The force of
it derives as much from something like Mozart's g-minor Symphony No.
40 as from middle and late Beethoven, that no-man's land between two
eras where Mendelssohn's power lies. Its modernity derives from its
self-conscious formal innovations: its ruthless clarity and drive toward
unity. Not only the famous connecting progression between the first
two movements, but even the cadenza, normally a suspension of symphonic
argument, become its servant, effecting a genuine transition between
development and recapitulation. The same rhythmic motifs show up in
all three movements, further binding the concerto. The second movement,
beginning with a characteristically "sweet" idea, reminiscent of some
of the Lieder ohne Worte. A middle section of surprising depth breaks
in, and both Francescatti and Szell raise their game without sacrificing
their fundamental elegance. Commentators have likened the third movement,
an ingeniously modified rondo, to the Midsummer Night's Dream overture,
but there's nothing fey about Szell and Francescatti's full-blooded
account. They manage to achieve a sinewy wit.
The Tchaikovsky would appear to lie outside Francescatti's natural range,
as the Russian concerto par excellence, but the violinist makes a very
fine showing. Schippers and the New York Philharmonic give him plenty
of help, and, as with Szell, Francescatti becomes a partner (although a
very senior one) rather than a star. One can find finer accounts, but
this has nothing to apologize for. Francescatti stands up to the weight
of the orchestra without sacrificing his grace. Compared to other
soloists, he plays with chaste restraint, going less for the wow than
for the purely musical qualities of this masterpiece of a concerto.
This comes out most strongly in the first-movement cadenza, where he
proves he has not only the fingers but also the insight, and in the slow
movement - in my opinion, the height of this collaboration. The New York
Philharmonic at this point in their history won no points for precision,
and when Schippers presses them in the outer movements, their rhythm and
attack go spongy. In the slow movement, you get the equivalent of a
Vulcan mind-meld, and the reading immediately deepens without falling
into a tub of chicken fat.
The sound is definitely of its time and label - Columbia in the early
stereo era: goosed bass and the soloist too forward. But sparks do fly
here, with the Mendelssohn outstanding and the Tchaikovsky quite fine.
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