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:

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

JaschaHeifetzPlaying
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

 

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddlerthe American Masters documentary which aired last week on PBS, offers an inside look at the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential violinists. The program includes rare film and audio clips and features interviews with prominent contemporary violinists and former Heifetz students. It follows Heifetz from child prodigy roots in Russia, where he was a student of Leopold Auer at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to his immigration to the United States and longtime residence in Southern California. In addition to his private and somewhat lonely personal temperament, the documentary highlights Heifetz’s rigorous sense of discipline and emphasis on scales.

Jascha Heifetz raised the bar for all violinists who followed, his name becoming synonymous with technical perfection. His recordings suggest an exhilarating sense of pushing limits…staying right “on the edge” without ever falling. This quality seems to have been present from the beginning. As the story goes, the young Jascha launched into Paganini’s Moto perpetuo at such a stunningly fast tempo that Leopold Auer gasped, saying, “He doesn’t even realize that it can’t be played that fast.” Heifetz’s playing transcended sentimentality, unleashing raw power and blinding intensity.

A Sample of Heifetz Recordings

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:

The Sibelius Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960:

Chaconne, From Partita No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy:

Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So:

There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.

-Jascha Heifetz

Dylana Jenson’s Sibelius Recording

violinist Dylana Jenson
violinist Dylana Jenson

If you’ve never heard Dylana Jenson’s 1981 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, take a moment and listen. This soulful and blazing performance is widely regarded to be one of the finest recordings of the Sibelius ever made. It’s a rare gem which deserves more attention.

A child prodigy and student of Josef Gingold and Nathan Milstein, Jenson was awarded the silver medal at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when she was seventeen years old. Shortly after recording the Sibelius, her career suffered a devastating setback when she was forced to return a 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu violin which had been given to her as a long-term loan. The wealthy collector who owned the instrument had discovered that Jenson was planning to get married and concluded that she was not sufficiently serious about her career.

Dylana Jenson now plays a modern instrument made for her by Samuel Zygmuntowicz. You can hear that violin on Jenson’s excellent 2009 recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 and Barber Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. A passionate teacher, Dylana Jenson lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here is a live performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Dylana Jenson and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Here are a few more links:

  • A short documentary showing Jenson’s studies with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. This clip offers a fascinating snapshot of twentieth century violin history.
  • The Saint-Saëns Third Violin Concerto around 1980
  • The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1978
  • Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata
  • Sarasate’s Zapateado on the Merv Griffin Show, includes an interview with violin teacher Manual Compinsky

Jack Benny Shows Off His Strad

Following up on my post, Jack Benny and the Violinhere are two more funny violin-centered comedy clips. First, Jack Benny demonstrates the subtle differences between a Stradivarius and an average violin:

Comedy aside, Strads really don’t play themselves. It takes time to learn exactly how to make these violins sing. Many violinists comment on the endless colors and expression they discover as they play these great instruments. I’m reminded of a story about Jascha Heifetz:

[quote]After one concert, a fan entered the dressing room to compliment the artist on his performance. She told Heifetz “what a beautiful tone” his violin had had that night. He turned around, bent over and put his ear close to the violin laying in the still open case and said, “I don’t hear anything”.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]With Dylana Jenson[/typography]

This clip features Jack Benny with a young Dylana Jenson. Jenson went on to win the Silver Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Her 1981 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra is hailed as one of the finest interpretations of the piece.

Here is a great recording of a 13-year-old Jenson playing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. Listen to the second movement here.