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CD & Download: Historic Recordings

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D Op. 61 (1806) [36:14]
Piano Trio No.5 in D Op.70 No.1 Ghost (1808) [22:39]
Louis Zimmermann (violin)
Orchestra/Charles Woodhouse
Concertgebouw Trio (Louis Zimmermann (violin): Marix Loevensohn (cello); Jaap Spaanderman (piano))
rec. 1926, London (concerto); 1930, Amsterdam (Trio)

Experience Classicsonline

Louis Zimmermann (1873-1954) was a lucky man. Not only did he make the first electric recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto but his 1940 live broadcast with Mengelberg has also been preserved. This is a considerably better return for the Concertgebouw concertmaster than many of the elite soloists of the day, who were never able to record their interpretations once, let alone twice. The live 1940 performance is on Tahra 420/21 (review) and in part I must cannibalise that review to introduce the soloist.
For thirty-five years, barring a small interruption, he was leader of the Concertgebouw orchestra. He was also a chamber player of repute whose only major chamber recording was of the Ghost Trio. He did make two major concerto recordings - the Bach Double for Decca in 1935 with his fellow leader Hellmann, under Mengelberg, and of the work under discussion, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on which occasion he was accompanied by an unnamed orchestra and conductor Charles Woodhouse, a set that, as I noted at the time, I’d never seen or heard, but had been released on Dutch Columbia. Zimmermann was fifty-three in 1926. Many years before, his colleague Carl Flesch, then living and teaching in Amsterdam, gave a musical snapshot of him as having a "rounded somewhat weichlich tone" (“weichlich” was glossed as "effeminate"). He also accused him of overdoing his portamentos but noted that as an orchestral player "he was experienced and quick-witted".
This studio recording sees Zimmermann in significantly better technical and tonal estate than that rather disastrous 1940 live reading. There are however still moments of distinct executant crisis, a number of garish downward portamenti, slack tonal responses and an unwarmed tonal palette. The result is playing of late nineteenth century character. Zimmermann employs plenty of staccati, tempo fluctuations, and other expressive devices, but he speeds up in faster passages, almost always indicative of a loss of technical control. He also has some audible co-ordination problems. His conductor, Charles Woodhouse, was an experienced violinist and chamber player who had his own eponymous quartet. He was also associated with Henry Wood, whose orchestra he led for many years, in the same way that Zimmermann led for Mengelberg. In fact Woodhouse used to conduct the orchestra in rehearsal so that Wood could balance it. Both violinists probably met many years earlier when Zimmermann had lived and taught in London. Woodhouse sets a brisk cum stately tempo for the slow movement, and Zimmerman controls his slides better here. The finale is dry and workmanlike with insufficient rhythmic resilience all round. The recording is also rather personalised. There’s a very boomy bass, and considerable congestion in the tuttis. The string section doesn’t sound overly large. In addition to Zimmermann’s wandering intonation and the rather weird sounding orchestra wind tuning - this was an ad hoc London orchestra - there are a few fluffs along the way from the band.
Still, this recording has long escaped collectors. Recorded in London, it was only ever issued in Holland by Dutch Columbia. It hardly displaced the earlier acoustic performances of the work by Juan Manén, Josef Wolfsthal and Isolde Menges, except in terms of recording quality, and would soon be swept away by Kreisler’s recording, amongst others.
It’s coupled with the Ghost Trio with his Concertgebouw colleagues. This is a somewhat hollow-sounding 1930 Parlophone. The ensemble is pretty solid and the performance a good one. Expressive exaggerations are kept to a minimum, unless one includes rallentandi. But the big, very noticeable slowing down at 2:55 in the first movement is not an index of the trio’s self-indulgence but a preparation for the side change. This was part and parcel of recording practice of the time, but on a CD transfer it can sound somewhat baffling and structurally nonsensical. Listening to things on 78 leaves one with a different impression; after all, no performer at the time ever expected their recordings one day to be ‘joined up’ in this way. Whereas Mark Obert-Thorn transferred the Concerto, this trio is the work of Rolf den Otter. The former has done a good job indeed, especially in dealing with pitch problems. The latter is pretty good too, but has a sticky side-join at 3:42 in the finale. Playing my 78 set of the recording against his transfer shows he’s lost a touch of room ambience, though given that the Parlophone concerned was rather noisy I can understand the decision.
This is certainly an archival novelty, and I suspect it won’t be of much interest to most readers. I however found it fascinating!
Jonathan Woolf




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