replay: Robert Cowan makes his pick of the latest reissues
Friday 28 June 1996
Artur Balsam (piano), Budapest String Quartet
(Bridge / Koch 9063)
Here we have surprises all round... that Sergei Rachmaninov in his twenties had so much to say, that the habitually urbane Budapest Quartet could scorch the heartstrings and that Artur Balsam possessed a barnstorming technique the equal of Svyatoslav Richter's. The Trio elegiaque commemorates Tchaikovsky in precisely the same way that Tchaikovsky had commemorated Nicholay Rubinstein. Both Piano Trios protest a Romantic pessimism, and both tail a wildly demonstrative first movement with a colourful "theme and variations". In Rachmaninov's case, there's no doubt as to the piano's dominant role, especially in the first movement's central argument and in a finale - a separate entity to contrast with Tchaikovsky's crowning last variation - that looks forward to the great piano concertos. The violinist Joseph Roisman and cellist Mischa Schneider offer Balsam heartfelt support before rejoining their Budapest Quartet colleagues for Rachmaninov's extremely rare - and even more youthful - string quartets. The First Quartet is a quaint mirror-image of Borodin-cum-Tchaikovsky: tender, affectionately indulged but ultimately unmemorable. However, the Second Quartet finds its unremarkable first movement followed by a truly remarkable Andante molto sostenuto - a grim, funereal precursor of The Isle of the Dead, here brought ardently to life. All three concert performances have been very well transferred to CD.
Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Lalo: Symphonie espagnole
Bronislaw Huberman (violin), Vienna Philharmonic / George Szell
(Appian APR 5506) Sixty-two years on, and Huberman's Beethoven Concerto is still unrivalled. Even Kreisler's affection, Heifetz's brilliance and Szigeti's humility fail to measure up; and can you wonder that the ageing Brahms promised to write a Gypsy Fantasy especially for Huberman? Just listen to the soloist's initial entry, the way he races his crescendo, levels to a blissful plateau then sweetens the movement's principal theme. Joachim's mighty cadenza finds Huberman bowing a fierce spiccato then swooping down for the home straight. What must his 1903 performances on Paganini's Guarneri have sounded like? And can one wonder that George Szell never recorded the Concerto again? This was some act to follow. The Vienna Philharmonic play like angels, the 1934 recording is judiciously balanced and Appian's transfers are texturally full and virtually noise- free. "Half saint, half gypsy" - Hans Keller's epithet for Huberman could hardly have been more apt. And while the saint communed with Beethoven's spirit, the gypsy brought Lalo to the boil. Impulsive, audacious and big-hearted, Huberman's Symphonie espagnole signals a free spirit in terrible times. A year earlier, the Nazis had come to power; two years later, and Huberman formed the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later to become the Israel Philharmonic). Toscanini conducted without fee - and Beethoven towered once again.
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