The Art of Roman Totenberg
CD 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D, Op. 108 (1886-88) [21:05]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1917) [13:17]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Sonata in A, BWV 1003 (1720) [20:23]
Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Caprices Op.1 No. 24 [5:56]
Dean Sanders (piano)
rec. 30 November 1960
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in F, Op. 95 (first movement missing) (1810) [15:24]
WQXR Quartet (Roman Totenberg (1st violin); Daniel Guilet (2nd violin); Ralph Hersch (viola); Avron Twerdowsky (cello))
rec. 10 July 1943
CD 2
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Violin Sonata (1943) [18:31]
Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975)
Due studi (1947) [9:18]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Four pieces, Op. 7 (1910) [4:53]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Phantasy (1951) [9:31]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Duo concertante (1932) [15:46]
Soulima Stravinsky (piano), recorded on 4.April1961
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata (1923-1927) [18:11]
Shizue Sano (piano)
rec. 26 April 1996
ARBITER 159 [76:05 + 76:12]
This two-disc celebration of the life of Roman Totenberg (1911-2012) was released well before the violinist’s recent death. He was teaching and guiding to the very end: a remarkable end to a remarkable life. Totenberg was Polish and his hero was Huberman, with whose old teacher he studied in Warsaw. Later, he studied with Flesch in Berlin, and there are some vivid recollections in the booklet notes of Totenberg’s time in that city and beyond.
The recordings are all live. With pianist Dean Sanders he plays Brahms’s Op.108 Sonata in 1960. His sound had retained its innate sweetness and intensity, and those expressive devices of which considerable rubato and judiciously applied portamenti were just two. He takes the Adagio at a very slow tempo but it’s full of colour and shape, rising to a crest and subsiding. The finale is febrile but well controlled. His Debussy Sonata is slightly under the tempo for my own tastes, which incline more to the pairings of Dubois and Mass, and Francescatti and Casadesus. This tends to dissipate the tension a bit but it is all elegantly coloured, albeit with the firefly element in the finale somewhat too restrained. It’s particularly interesting to hear his solo Bach. He plays the solo Sonata in A, BWV1003. This is playing of grandeur and unashamed intensity, minor intonation problems notwithstanding. Expressive ritardandi heighten the work’s power, and Totenberg’s whole-hearted playing of it. There’s a remarkably teasingly played Paganini Caprice to finish this recital. The first disc finishes with a performance of Beethoven’s Op.95 Quartet given back in July 1943 by the WQXR Quartet, of which Totenberg was first violin. Daniel Guilet played second, Ralph Hersch was the violist, and Avron Twerdowsky the cellist. An elite group indeed. Regrettably the whole of the first movement is missing but the torso preserves excellent playing. The acetates have a few scratches, but the sound is less boxy than contemporaneous Library of Congress recitals.
The second disc was largely taped in April 1961. Totenberg was accompanied by the first class Soulima Stravinsky in a recital of serious demeanour. Copland’s 1943 Sonata, though, certainly gets the required ‘semplice’ treatment in its opening movement whilst Dallapiccola’s brilliant Due studi, written four years after the Copland, bring out Totenberg’s arsenal of communicative asperity, verve and dynamism. Webern’s Four Pieces are demarcated with great clarity, and Schoenberg’s thorny Phantasy negotiated with outstanding perception: not for Totenberg Menuhin’s doggedly romanticised approach. It’s certainly no hardship to hear Soulima Stravinsky in his father’s Duo Concertante, where Totenberg summons up the shade of so perceptive a Stravinskian as Szigeti. Together Totenberg and Stravinsky recorded the Divertissement and Suite Italienne in the studio for Allegro. The very last piece was recorded in April 1996 and it’s Ravel’s Sonata with Shizue Sano. Intonation wanders somewhat and Totenberg’s vibrato speed has necessarily lessened, but he still smears and suavely steers his way through the Blues movement with remarkable force and conviction. Amazing playing for an 85 year old, to put it mildly.
I first heard Totenberg on disc in the Bloch Concerto on Vanguard. It’s still by a long way my favourite recording of the work, though Hyman Bress is terrific too. How worthwhile it would be to hear Totenberg’s discs on Musicraft and Allegro and Eterna and a number of other labels. It would be a valuable salute to this great musician, whose memory is perpetuated so lovingly here by Arbiter.
Jonathan Woolf
Totenberg’s memory is perpetuated so lovingly here.