Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 (CD review)
Good things continue to come around.
When the CD age dawned in the early Eighties, I had a long list of recordings 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. Then, with my finding Michael Rabin's Paganini Violin Concerto on CD, I had completed the project.
Rabin recorded his remarkable performance of Paganini's First Violin Concerto for EMI 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. The sound wasn't so hot, edgy and thin, and the vinyl was noisy. Later I managed to find it on an EMI Electrola German LP, which at least had quieter surfaces. But the recording's interpretation was the best I had ever heard, and the best I have 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 these days may be the recording's age, yet one listen and you forget it wasn't recorded yesterday.
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, and Hilary Hahn's newer realization on DG provides even smoother response. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to discover that when EMI finally did transfer Rabin's performance to CD in a big, expensive multi-disc set, it sounded magnificent. In fact, in many ways it surpasses Perlman's and Hahn's renditions for sound quality.
Rabin's violin appears perhaps a touch close and its tone just a tad forward, but it is marvelously clean, transparent, and alive; and the orchestral accompaniment, while a smidgeon recessed overall is, nevertheless, nicely spacious and transparent. Moreover, there is hardly a trace of background noise unless you turn up the volume to the threshold of pain. There is also a welcome depth of image, strong dynamics, fine midrange clarity, quick transient response, good treble extension, more than adequate bass, and a mild room resonance. It's also the tiniest bit bright, but everything else is working so well, you probably won't notice.
Here's the thing, though: Because of the expense and the difficulty in locating the big six-disc EMI set of Rabin's work, I found it hard to recommend it to people. But then I discovered that EMI France had issued the piece in a two-disc set, along with Paganini's 24 Caprices and Yuhudi Menuhin doing the Second Violin Concerto. That was a better deal, but it still wasn't what I remembered from my younger, LP days, the Paganini First coupled with Wieniawski's Second Violin Concerto. Until now, when I finally realized that EMI Japan had released this single CD of the original pairing from the 1960 LP.
The coupling on the disc is almost equally distinguished as the Paganini. Polish composer and violinist Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) premiered his Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22 in 1862, and it's been something of a staple of the violin repertoire ever since. It's never attained anything like the popularity of the Paganini, understand, but people like it pretty well in any case. It begins somewhat gloomily, turns rhapsodic and Romantic, and ends in a lively, Gypsy-like finale. Rabin applies the same exuberant spirit and clarity of line to the Wieniawski as he does in the Paganini and produces memorable results. The playing is active and lively, with wonderful control, the violin singing and weeping in remarkable accord.
Then, for extra measure the Japanese give us Wieniawski's First Violin Concerto with Rabin, but this one from 1957, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and released by EMI in monaural. If not quite so accomplished as the preceding stereo works, the First Concerto is worth hearing, and Rabin and Boult do it justice.
Finally, how does the sound of the EMI Japan disc compare to EMI's multi-disc CD transfer and EMI France's transfer of the Paganini First? About the same, actually. In side-by-side comparisons, the Japanese disc seems a bit more open, the high end more extended, and the impact more solid. Still, it was so close I might have been momentarily delusional. Let's just say the sound in all three versions is excellent, so choice among them might go to whichever coupling one prefers and how much one wants to spend on the product, this single Japanese disc of the original pairing being my personal favorite and the least expensive of the lot. It's a terrific deal.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.