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Zimbalist - two concertos from one of the all-time greats
"The sweeping and richly characterized performance carries the day. A recommendation, strongly and absolutely" - Fanfare
For all his importance in the musical world as a violinist, composer and head of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, it is remarkable that Efrem Zimbalist left only a single commercial recording of any violin concerto – an acoustic Bach Double with Kreisler, backed by a string quartet. We are particularly fortunate, then, that these two broadcast recordings exist. While the Brahms has been issued before on LP and CD, the Sibelius appears here for the first time in a commercial release.
The source for the Brahms was a CD-R copied from a tape transfer of the original broadcast acetates. Although there are some intermittent problems, the basic sound quality is notably above average for broadcast transcriptions of that era. There is a wealth of audible detail, including Koussevitzky’s spoken “Bravo” at the end of Zimbalist’s sublime performance of the second movement.
UPDATED 10 FEBRUARY 2012:
Most of the Sibelius was taken from an open-reel tape containing rough, unjoined transfers of eight 78 rpm acetate sides. Due to a defect in this source, however, the first side (up to 4:07 on Track 5) came from a CD-R copy of a tape transfer of another set of acetates. I have tried to match the sound on the two sources the best I could, and have also attempted to correct the severe pitch fluctuations which plagued both sets of originals.
BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (Cadenza: Kreisler/Zimbalist)
Recorded from the broadcast of 30th March 1946 in Symphony Hall, Boston
Boston Symphony Orchestra
conductor Serge Koussevitzky
SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Recorded from the broadcast of 9th January 1944 in Severance Hall, Cleveland
The Cleveland Orchestra
conductor Rudolf Ringwall
Efrem Zimbalist violin
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Additional noise reduction by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Efrem Zimblast
Special thanks to Nathan Brown, Langdon F. Lombard and James H. North for providing source material
Total duration: 77:33
Zimbalist plays magisterially here
Although Efrem Zimbalist Senior left, as Mark Obert-Thorn states in his note, only one commercial concerto recording—of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Concerto with Fritz Kreisler—later in life, Kreisler considered that recording one of his favorite few. Zimbalist’s broadcast recording of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto has been issued and reissued (it appears in somewhat less rich recorded sound on Doremi DHR-7739, Fanfare 22:5). Obert-Thorn took as his source a CD-R—from a tape—of the original acetates. Reviewing the performance itself in Doremi’s incarnation, I reflected that Zimbalist might simply have been a victim of Jascha Heifetz’s mystique, concluding that, at the very least, Zimbalist’s “technical bravura and breadth of musicianship … would easily make him an emperor among current performers” with “ample and luxurious phrasing, but no less … willingness to take risks, virtually all of which paid off.” Still, repeated listenings reveal a roughness in the declamatory double-stopped passages (compare Albert Spalding’s from a similar period in the violinists’ lives) that the overall musical and technical command nevertheless tends to overshadow (in both first and third movements). I also noted the “incandescent” second movement, and in Pristine’s transfer, listeners can hear Koussevitsky’s “bravo” at the end. The remarkably good recorded sound reveals the beauty of Zimbalist’s tone in all registers and the commanding crackle of his bow stroke in the rugged détaché so plentiful in the concerto’s first movement. I remarked that in the finale, “his technical facility provides many pleasant surprises.” I might have paid more ample tribute to Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the monumental accompaniment (the same forces had supported Heifetz so admirably in his recording of the same concerto in 1939, available, though apparently not in the United States, on Naxos 8.110936). Whatever the merits of Obert-Thorn’s engineering, the sweeping and richly characterized performance itself carries the day—a perhaps surprisingly vibrant reading from an Auer student who left few documents of an orchestral soloist’s career that established a reputation that’s unfortunately dimmed over the years.
Obert-Thorn suggests that the opportunity to release his transfer of Jean Sibelius’s Concerto from open-reel tape of the original acetates trumped the difficulties the material presents, including echoes delayed by a full eight seconds. Many will find the effect of that echo deeply disturbing, but it lasts only through the first four-odd minutes (it may be hard not to watch the clock for these to expire). [NB. An alternative source without this echo defect was found and inserted into our masters after this review was published.] But Zimbalist plays magisterially here, if not so crisply as Heifetz in 1959 or as terrifyingly (one of my students’ adverbs) as Heifetz in 1935. Obert-Thorn claims to have attempted pitch correction, but some imprecision remains. In the first movement, Rudolf Ringwall and the Cleveland Orchestra spread the mists thickly for Zimbalist to penetrate, and the violinist doesn’t linger indulgently in the rhapsodic landscape. Nevertheless, he isn’t so incisive as Heifetz, and doesn’t generate the same voltage in the solo passages—though he doesn’t struggle in them either, although it sometimes sounds as though he strains to produce a rounded tone in the higher positions on the middle strings. He slows down to enhance the effect of the haunting double-stopped ruminations near the movement’s end before plunging into a bracing account of the final passage with its treacherous glassy octaves. Zimbalist doesn’t throb in the slow movement’s opening; his vibrato seems too restricted and too slow for that. And most violinists would eschew the portamentos with which he adorns the statement of the theme. Once again, some wayward intonation, suspicious perhaps because it occurs in the upper positions on the lower strings, may not actually be Zimbalist’s fault. But slowing down almost to immobility before and after the impassioned middle section and, to some extent, in that passage itself, results from an artistic choice. In the finale, some of the rushing passages sound insecure, although it’s hard to believe that age could have been responsible; Heifetz made his crackling second recording at the age of 58.
For those who admire Zimbalist and honor his accomplishments, this disc may seem a somewhat mixed tribute, with a knowing reading of Brahms’s Concerto paired with one of Sibelius’s Concerto they’re likely to find at the same time illuminating and disappointing. For those who admire the performance of Brahms’s Concerto, Pristine’s release seems mandatory, as arguably the most life-like remastering. A recommendation, therefore, of the Sibelius merely for its documentary value, but strongly and absolutely for its discmate.
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:4 (Mar/Apr 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.