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:

Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha

George and Ira Gershwin
George and Ira Gershwin

 

A pop song about the prominent violinists of the day? It seems hard to imagine now. But around 1921 George and Ira Gershwin wrote Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha, a lighthearted ditty about four great Jewish Russian violinists who were well known at the time: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobsen. The lyric also refers to “Fritz” (Kreisler) and the legendary teacher Leopold Auer. According to biographer Charles Schwartz, George Gershwin enjoyed playing the song at parties whenever one of the violinists who inspired the title was present.

Heifetz needs no introduction, but who are the others? Born in 1891, Mischa Elman is remembered for his rich, golden tone, expressive portamento, and tendency towards Romantic phrasing which occasionally bent the rhythm. Here is his recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Here is a 1954 recording of Elman performing Dvořák’s Humoresque. 

Toscha Seidel’s solo career was, perhaps unfairly, overshadowed by Heifetz. But we can hear the passionate intensity of his playing on recordings like this 1945 live performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Seidel eventually settled in California and became a studio soloist for Hollywood films. Listen to this music from the 1939 film Intermezzo which starred Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman.

Sascha Jacobsen is another violinist whose career was overshadowed by Heifetz. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz claims that Jacobsen was born in New York in 1897 and that his manager tried to turn him into a “Russian fiddler” for publicity purposes. In the 1940s he served as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was the teacher of Zvi Zeitlin. Here is a 1913 recording of Jacobsen performing Handel.

And now here is the Gershwins’ humorous snapshot of early twentieth century violin history:

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

Joshua Bell’s Bach Album

Unknown-24Joshua Bell released his newest album yesterday. The CD, simply titled “Bach”, is Bell’s first recording collaboration with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2011.

If you’re expecting another predictable round of Bach concertos, you may be surprised. This album includes the monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 2 with Mendelssohn’s rare piano accompaniment (adapted for orchestra), as well as Schumann’s accompaniment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3. It’s not the way you would want to hear solo Bach every day. In fact, Mendelssohn’s addition practically turns the Chaconne into a completely new piece. Still, these offerings fall to the category of historical curiosity and are worth exploring.

It’s the A Minor and E Major Violin Concertos which make this recording stand out. The connection between Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields feels more like chamber music than a violin solo with orchestra accompaniment. There is incredible attention to detail, balance, and sense of dialogue. In the haunting second movement of the E Major Concerto, the bass line converses with the solo violin, while long sustained chords in the violins suggest an atmosphere of mystery. Bell occasionally adds ornaments and captures the joy of the Baroque dance-like rhythms. Air on the G String is also included. “Bach” is available on iTunes.

The release of Joshua Bell’s CD coincided with his return to the Washington D.C. metro yesterday. This time, unlike his extensively publicized 2007 experiment, commuters recognized him and stopped to listen.

You can hear Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in this clip of the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Also, listen to him play the Bach Chaconne in its original, unaccompanied form: