Paganini: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, 24 Caprices; Rossini Variations; The Carnival of Venice. Michael Rabin, Yehudi Menuhin, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Salvatore Accardo, violin; Sir Eugene Goossens, Alberto Erede, and Franco Tamponi, conductors; Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. EMI Classics (France) 7243 5 75332-2 (2-disc set).

Good things come to those who wait. I just never expected to wait twenty years.

When the CD age dawned in the early Eighties, I had a long list of things I wanted to get on compact disc. Over the years the list shortened, and by just a few years ago it was down to only two items.  Now, with my finding the Paganini, I’ve completed the list.

Michael Rabin recorded his remarkable performance of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto way back in 1960 with Sir Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I didn’t come to it until the late Sixties, however, by which time it had gone on to the budget label, Seraphim, and later I managed to find it on an EMI Electrola German issue. The sound wasn’t so hot, but the interpretation was the best I had ever heard, and the best I’ve yet to hear. In its opening movements Rabin’s violin sings lyrically and melancholically and plaintively, and in the final movement it struts and dances, the cock o’ the walk. Never have I heard such verve, such exceptional vibrancy and wit and energy, as in Rabin’s reading. Indeed, the only minor drawback for some listeners may be the traditional cuts Rabin makes in the score, but the very conciseness of the result for me works in its favor, rendering every note all the more succulently.

But that’s not all. I had never expected the sound to be much more than passable; it was the performance I cherished. Besides, the later recording by Itzhak Perlman, also on EMI, was sonically splendid enough if it were just sound I was after. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover that this first-time transfer of Rabin to CD also sounds magnificent. In fact, in many ways it surpasses Perlman’s rendition. Rabin’s violin sounds perhaps a touch too close, and its tone is just a tad bright, but it is marvelously clean and alive; and the orchestral accompaniment, while somewhat recessed overall is, nevertheless, highly dynamic, with plenty of low-end sock. Moreover, there is hardly a trace of background noise you’ll notice, unless you turn up the volume to the threshold of pain. 

All in all, this two-disc set is worth its price for the First Violin Concerto alone, but there is more. It’s filled out with Yehudi Menuhin’s recording of the Second Concerto, also from 1960, and also splendidly transferred to disc. Menuhin hasn’t quite the zip or dash of Rabin, but the Second Concerto makes a fine companion. As does Frank Peter Zimmermann’s playing of Paganini's 24 Caprices, recorded in 1984-85. Although you’ll find these violin studies in bravura showmanship done equally well or better by (who else?) Rabin, available on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, who’s to argue with icing on the cake with Zimmermann’s renditions. Finally, there are two short Paganini pieces done by Salvatore Accardo, with Franco Tamponi and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe backing him, recorded in 1983, and these pieces, too, are appealing and well recorded.

Perhaps the only snag in this affair is the fact that as of this writing only EMI Music France has made the set available (at mid-price). But various sites on-line have it available, like Amazon.com and TowerRecords.com. For me, it was worth every penny of its twenty-odd-dollar asking price, and I see now that you can get it for much less than that. Besides, who knows, maybe someday Warner Classics, the new owners of EMI, will see fit to issue it in this country.

Oh, and that one remaining item on my list I finally found? The Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony with Eugene Jochum and the Boston Symphony on DG. Practically every critic in the world at the time of its mid-Seventies release on LP recommended it, yet the folks at DG still have not released it on CD in the U.S. Maybe they are still waiting to give it a big entrance. Meanwhile, DG did issue the recording on CD in Germany, and, yes, I found it, almost by accident, at a German import site. But all of this is beside the point. The Paganini is available; think about it.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa