The Recorded Legacy of Ginette Neveu

French violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949)
French violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949)

 

Tomorrow marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of French violinist Ginette Neveu. At the time of her tragic death at the age of 30 in an airplane crash, Neveu was widely regarded as one of the finest violinists of her generation. Her playing was characterized by an almost otherworldly fire and searing intensity. Her recordings exhibit a natural perfection of phrasing and a soulfulness of sound that cut through the limitations of early phonograph technology. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz described Ginette Neveu’s playing this way:

No one who saw or heard her could forget that impression-the serious concentration, the complete immersion in her task, the burning yet controlled intensity. To speak of technique is pointless because it never served for display-it was always subordinate to a musical goal. 

Ginette Neveu was five when she began to study the violin, first with her mother and then with Jules Boucherit, George Enescu, Nadia Boulanger, and Carl Flesch. When she was seven she performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra. At the age of fifteen she won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, beating out 180 other contestants, including David Oistrakh who was awarded the second prize. She helped to popularize the Sibelius Violin Concerto and gave the premiere of the Violin Sonata (Op. 119) by Francis Poulenc.

On October 28, 1949 she was en route to concert engagements in the United States when her Air France flight crashed into a mountain after two failed attempts to make an emergency landing at an airport on  São Miguel Island in the Azores. Her accompanist and brother, the pianist Jean-Paul Neveu, was also killed. Following her death, cellist Pablo Casals wrote,

For me her playing has always been one of the greatest revelations of the instruments and of music. To the impression of perfection, balance, and artistic taste, she added in her interpretation, fire and abandon which filled her playing with richness. 

Brahms and More

Here is Neveu’s 1948 recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with conductor Issay Dobrowen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Keep listening after the concerto and you’ll hear a collection of shorter pieces: Suk’s Four Pieces, Op. 17 (at 38:16), Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 (at 54:22), Ravel’s Tzigane (at 58:40), Falla’s Danse espagnole (at 1:08:54), and the showpiece Hora staccato by Romanian virtuoso violinist Grigoraş Dinicu (at 1:12:20).

Sibelius Violin Concerto

Here is the final movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with conductor Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra. (You can listen to the first two movements here). The tempo is slightly slower than we often hear, but every note can be heard and there is a powerful sense of a Nordic dance taking flight:

Strauss Violin Sonata

Here is Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18, a soaring, Romantic work by a composer we usually associate with large-scale orchestral tone poems:

Hilary Hahn’s New Album: Mozart and Vieuxtemps

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Hilary Hahn released an excellent new recording on March 31. The album pairs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 by Belgian virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). In the recording’s official trailer, Hahn mentions that she first learned both pieces around the age of 10 as she was entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There’s also some interesting violin lineage at work: Hahn’s teacher Jascha Brodsky was a student of Eugène Ysaÿe who studied with Vieuxtemps.

Mozart’s Fifth, written when he was 19 years old, has earned the nickname, “The Turkish Concerto” because of the wild “Turkish” dance in the middle of the final movement. We get hints of this moment of joyful spontaneity in the first movement (1:11 below). These moments stand out on this CD, partly because of the stylish playing of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Järvi. On older recordings it is common to hear the orchestra in the background and the solo violin prominently front and center. Here, the orchestra is an equal partner, and the balance is similar to what you would hear in a live concert. There’s a great sense of motion and flow in the Adagio.

Here is the first movement:

You may notice the influence of Hector Berlioz’ music in the Vieuxtemps. (Amazingly, if you listen closely, you can hear what sounds like birds tweeting on the recording before the music begins). Berlioz said, “Vieuxtemps is as remarkable a composer as he is an incomparable virtuoso.” While this statement may seem exaggerated now, it shows how popular Vieuxtemps’ concertos were in their day. This music still occupies an important place in the violin repertoire. In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz says,

Vieuxtemps’ achievement was to rejuvenate the grand concept of the French violin concerto by using the orchestra in a more symphonic manner and by letting the solo violin speak with a more eloquent and impassioned voice. In his Fourth concerto (1849-50) he abandoned the traditional form by inserting a Scherzo and shaping the opening movement freely, almost like an improvisation of the solo violin; there is also a cyclic connection with the Finale.