Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto; Piano Trio No. 5 “Ghost” – Louis Zimmermann, violin/Orch. conducted by Charles Woodhouse – Historic-Recordings

An Old-World performance--the first electrical inscription--of the Beethoven Violin Concerto from Mengelberg’s concertmaster proves captivating on its own terms.

Published on May 24, 2011

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto; Piano Trio  No. 5 “Ghost” – Louis Zimmermann, violin/Orch. conducted by Charles Woodhouse – Historic-Recordings

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61; Piano Trio  No. 5 in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 “Ghost” – Louis Zimmermann, violin/Orchestra conducted by Charles Woodhouse/Marix Loevensohn, cello/Jaap Spaanderman, piano - Historic-RecordingsHRCD 100, 58:53 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] ****:

For many years the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Louis Zimmermann (1873-1954) inscribed the first electrical recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (10 June 1926) for Columbia in the UK, London, although the discs were issued only in Holland. No credit for the accompaniment appeared on the original labels, so many assumed that Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw had been involved.

Parenthetically, a Mengelberg performance–with Guila Bustabo, c. 1940–does exist. Fritz Kreisler’s recording of the Concerto with Leo Blech would not appear until December 1926. For this issue, producer and audio-restorer Mark Obert-Thorn has tackled the daunting severe fluctuations in pitch that typically plague English Columbia shellacs. The transfer of the Ghost Trio from Parlophone shellacs was made by Rolf den Otter, but no other factual data are provided.

After a pronounced tympani riff, a thinly reedy introduction opens in a brisk tempo for the Allegro non troppo, the cadences marked by tympani and plucked strings. In portamento rather typical of the age, conductor Woodhouse (1879-1939) expands upon Beethoven’s main theme, with Zimmermann’s entry in half steps rather staggered in the upward scales His thin tone–a Guarnerius del Gesu 1726–reminds us of that of Joseph Szigeti. Zimmermann demonstrates his capacity for sudden accelerations and for an articulate trill. His rises to the main thematic statement with slides and rubato again indicative of a Romantic and “obsolete” sensibility to this work, though the reading impresses us with its dramatic continuity. The Woodhouse contribution in the more massive tuttis proves large, especially with the emphases on the bass fiddles. The interplay between Zimmermann, basses, horn, and assorted woodwinds weaves a singularly long line, once more with Zimmermann’s plying staccato phrasing in the upward steps. The development proceeds at a driven pace, the slides and metric shifts assimilated into a consistent if rhetorically–by today’s standards–mannered vision. I do not recognize Zimmermann’s cadenza, but it takes a brief virtuosic run in octaves and sails into the plucked accompaniment without batting an eyelash.

The G Major Larghetto projects a dry acoustic, what at first appears an austere and chaste account. The scale of sound, too, remains compact, a chamber music intimacy dominant. The sweet dialogue between Zimmermann and the French horn shines despite the swish of the shellacs and the tendency to slide between register shifts. The old-fashioned approach to the transition to the Rondo speaks, though briefly, and we enter the Allegretto with a demure passion, articulate but a mite dainty for my taste. Woodhouse has the orchestra making robust, masculine thrusts, however, and the horn and woodwind passages move with authority. Zimmermann’s flair and personal sizzle comes to the fore finally, and we can savor his innate if dated musicianship. The driven impetus of the movement leads to a foreshortened, stunning cadenza, on its own terms. Polyphonic, with broken octaves and a mighty trill, it could point to what Romantics like Sarasate or Joachim might have brought this score. The last pages ring with a potent majesty and dignity, a performance that sets a high standard within its own tradition.

The undated recording of the Ghost Trio of 1808 instantly pounces upon us in sound decidedly of a superior cast to the Beethoven Concerto. If cellist Loevensohn were the Concertgebouw principal, then pianist Spaanderman may have been Mengelberg’s rehearsal pianist. The arched phrases of the opening exhibit exuberant triumph alternated with gloomy melancholy, all taken in huge gulps by this Concertgebouw Trio, recorded with the strings quite forward. All three instrumentalists engage in brilliant runs and liquid legato phrasing. The second movement, Largo assai ed espressivo, proceeds as one of those harmonic struggles divided among the instruments, much in the wake of the Waldstein Sonata’s slow movement, the bass tones often grumbling under twists and turns higher up. A step-wise melody emerges over the ostinato bass turns only to land a sustained note in the cello, so that the procession begins anew but possibly ameliorated by the anguish already endured. The Presto applies a fervent and light touch, a drive and playfulness that aligns the work with the spirit of Haydn. Rhetorically, this performance certainly appeals to the modern ear more than did the Concerto, since I detect fewer–they can be found, nonetheless–flourishes and excessive mannerisms among the players. The attacks tend to be direct, the articulation smooth and quite clean. The last page–bright and eminently delightful–fell upon my critical imagination with gratitude for having discovered a truly integrated ensemble.

– Gary Lemco

 




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