Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Wieniawski: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Michael Rabin, violin; Sir Eugene Goossens and Sir Adrian Boult, conductors; Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Japan TOCE-16323.

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:


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