by Walter Simmons
BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. SARASATE: Introduction and Tarantella. PROKOFIEF: Sonata for Violin Solo. Mischa Lefkowitz, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. LAUREL LR-134 (digital), produced by rierschel 3urke Gilbert, $9.98. (Available from Laurel, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046)
Laurel, the remarkable record company run by the indefatigable Herschel Burke Gilbert, continues its landmark traversal of the major works of Ernest Bloch with a brilliant new performance of the composer’s 1938 Violin Concerto. The disc also marks the recording debut of young Latvian violinist Mischa Lefkowitz, winner of the 1983 International American Music Competition, among other awards and prizes.
Although it has always had its share of admirers, Bloch’s Violin Concerto has never been a favorite of mine. Its recurrent motto theme, ostensibly derived from American Indian sources but unmistakably Blochian nonetheless, proclaims itself in a way that sounds stubbornly dogmatic, the result of hewing too tightly to the tonic. The expansively rhapsodic first movement seems strained and rhetorical, drawing one’s attention to mannerisms used more effectively elsewhere in the composer’s output. The gently nocturnal second movement is the most successful portion of the work, projecting an ethereal aura strongly tinged with middle-eastern exoticism. The third movement introduces sunnier thematic material, similar to the Alpine pastoralism found in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 and other works. This more optimistic disposition eventually triumphs, through a reconciliation with the turbulent material of the first movement.
The concerto was introduced the year of its completion by Joseph Szigeti, who recorded it shortly thereafter. That performance, with Charles Munch leading the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire, is still available on Turnabout THS-65007. Others who have recorded it include Roman Totenberg, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Vladimir Golschmann (Vanguard VRS-1083) and Yehudi Menuhin, a staunch advocate of Bloch’s music, who recorded the work in 1963 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki (Angel 36192). All three of these performances have much to recommend them — accuracy, sensitivity, sympathy with the music — although none of them is notable for tonal beauty, tending instead toward a rather thin, wiry quality. In the face of this competition, Lefkowitz acquits himself quite well, with the most incisive and tightly focused interpretation of all, as well as the most tonally refined. However, the strongest feature of this recording, in comparison with its predecessors, is the quality of the recording itself, which has a richness and vividness that distinguish it as a recording of the 1980s, giving it a distinct advantage. The London Philharmonic under Paul Freeman’s direction provides adequate support.
Also included on the disc is what is billed as the first recording of the orchestral version of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella. The lack of musical content in this sort of showpiece enables the violinist to relax and “show his stuff” to those in the audience who regard music like this as the test of a performer. Such listeners will find no fault with Lefkowitz’s execution.
Presenting another side of his artistry, Lefkowitz tackles Prokofiev’s 1947 Sonatafor unaccompanied violin. Prokofiev was too essentially a melodic-homophonic type of composer to be really successful at this sort of piece which requires either a contrapuntal or a concentratedly motivic conception in order to be of substantial interest. Instead, the result gives the impression of an accompanied piece in the composer’s cheerfully neoclassical vein, minus the accompaniment.While providing a challenge to the performer, it fails to satisfy the listener’s appetite for what Prokofiev does best. Nevertheless, here as well Lefkowitz presents a vigorous and acutely accurate performance. I look forward to hearing him in further explorations of adventurous repertoire — and to further entries in Laurel’s Bloch cycle. Most urgently needed are two inexplicable overlooked pieces: the symphonic suite Evocations and Two Last Poems for flute and orchestra.