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Josef Wolfsthal's two 1920s electric concerto recordings
A tragic early death robbed the world of a possible violin superstar
MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K.219, “Turkish” [notes/score] Frieder Weissmann / Berlin State Opera Orchestra
Recorded 15th and 19th September, 1928 and *9th September, 1929 in Berlin
Matrix nos.: 20911, 20916, 20918, 20919, 20927, 20928, 20929 and *20930-2
First issued on Parlophon P-9359, 9360, 9457 and 9458
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 [notes/score] Manfred Gurlitt / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Recorded 1929 in Berlin
Matrix nos.: 1534 ½ bm, 1535 ½ bm, 1536 bm, 1537 bm, 1538 bm, 1547 ½ bm, 1548½ bm, 1549 bm, 1550 bm and 1551 bm
First issued on Grammophon 95243 through 95247
Josef Wolfsthal, violin
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Pupil of Carl Flesch, teacher of the young Szymon Goldberg, chamber recital partner to Hindemith and Feuermann, Josef Wolfsthal (1899 – 1931) seemed to have a bright future before him when he was cut down at the age of 31 during an influenza epidemic.
Although he recorded fairly extensively during the 1920s for a number of German labels, most of his discs were of short encores. The selections presented here are his only electrical concerto recordings. A comparison of the Beethoven with his acoustic version of some four years earlier shows that he was already beginning to move away from the use of portamento in favor of a more modern, streamlined style of playing.
In the Mozart, there is a brief cut of some orchestra-only material in the middle of the second movement, made in order to fit the work onto eight sides. In addition, the final side (starting at Track 3, 6:25), made a year after the rest of the recording, was set down after Parlophon had switched from the Western Electric system to their own proprietary (and decidedly inferior) technology, which tended to make upper frequencies sound uncomfortably harsh.
The sources for the present transfers were American Columbia “Viva-Tonal” pressings for the Mozart (the most quiet form of issue for this inherently noisy recording) and German Polydor pressings for the Beethoven.
One of the new breed of German violinists who emerged after World War I, Josef Wolfsthal had the reputation of burning the candle at both ends – and in the middle. Few were wholly surprised when he came to an early end, although it was influenza complicated by pneumonia which killed him, rather than any dissolute habits.
He was born to Galician parents in Vienna on 12 June 1899. It was a musical family – his elder brother Max was also a violinist – and he had his first lessons from his father Lazar, an excellent teacher who also nurtured Sigmund Feuermann. Official records show that the family name was really Wolfthal.
At ten Josef went to Carl Flesch, who taught him until he was 16, allowed him to give a few public performances – on 7 April 1916 Wolfsthal made his Berlin Philharmonic debut, partnering Flesch in the Bach Double Concerto with Camillo Hildebrand conducting – and then, feeling that he needed discipline, encouraged him to take an orchestral post.
Wolfsthal began as leader in Bremen in succession to Georg Kulenkampff, moved to Stockholm, then in 1921 landed the plum job of leading Germany’s finest ensemble at that time, the Berlin State Opera Orchestra; he was a particular favourite with Richard Strauss, who often conducted at the old Lindenoper. Wolfsthal can be heard on Strauss’s first recording of Ein Heldenleben, and also on the recording of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, where he can particularly be heard in the Dance of the Tailors. At 26, he became a teacher at the Berlin Hochschule.
From 1928 he was Klemperer’s co-leader (with Max Strub) at the Kroll Opera, where in February 1929 he gave the local premiere of Hindemith’s Concerto (Kammermusik No. 4). He had a trio with Leonid Kreutzer and Gregor Piatigorsky and could have gone to America with the cellist and Vladimir Horowitz, but typically blew the audition with Piatigorsky’s manager by starting to improvise in the middle of the test piece and roaring with laughter.
In 1929 Wolfsthal linked up with Hindemith and Emanuel Feuermann to form a string trio (after he had gone, Szymon Goldberg took over the violin chair).
In November 1930, Wolfsthal caught a chill at a friend’s funeral; he did not look after himself and steadily grew more ill, finally succumbing in Berlin on 3 February 1931. He left a young wife, Olga (previously married to George Szell and later to the cellist Benar Heifetz) and a baby daughter.
His small but finely focused, transparent tone can be heard on a number of recordings, including Mozart’s A major Concerto, the Mendelssohn Concerto and two of the Beethoven Concerto: an acoustic version is severely cut but the complete electrical performance has many flashes of spontaneity, alongside less mature passages. He plays Joachim’s cadenzas in both the Mozart and the Beethoven.
If he lacked the genius of a Busch or the consistency of a Kulenkampff, he had more volatile qualities which might have developed in an interesting fashion – or might not, as Flesch hints in his memoirs.
BEETHOVEN: 3rd mvt. - Rondo: Allegretto
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