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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 [15:36]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30/3 [16:23]
Belá BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, Sz 76 [21:20]
Rumanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56 [4:35]
Tossy Spivakovsky (violin)
Artur Balsam (piano)
Robert Cornman (piano) (Beethoven)
rec. New York, 1947 (Bartók), 1950 (Bach & Beethoven)

My only previous acquaintance with the playing of Tossy Spivakovsky (1906-1998) is on an Everest recording featuring the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos (EVC 9035). The Sibelius is outstanding, with a thrilling high-voltage finale. Spivakovsky originated from Odessa and was a pupil of Willy Hess in Berlin. At 18 he was talent-spotted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and became the youngest concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. Two years later he left to pursue a solo career in Europe. When the Nazis rose to power he took a teaching post in Melbourne, Australia. In 1940 he moved to the USA, becoming concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodziński, a role that enabled him to perform solo. He gave the USA premiere of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1943, a performance that both impressed the composer and launched his solo career in the States.

Spivakovsky was noted for his highly individual and idiosyncratic approach to violin playing. He cannot be categorized as belonging to any particular school of fiddle playing. He had a penchant for unusual fingerings, and his unconventional bowing, which seemed to work for him, was characterized by an unorthodox bow hold, where it was gripped above the frog. This facilitated smoothness of tone and incisiveness of attack, but limited his tonal palette somewhat, a problem further compounded by an incessantly fast vibrato.

He had his own individual approach to solo Bach, using a curved bow, which he had acquired from Knud Vestergaard of Denmark. This enabled him to play three and four note chords in an unbroken manner. His method never really caught on that much, but Gaylord Yost wrote a book "The Spivakovsky Way of Bowing". Throughout his career, the violinist continued to experiment with unusual bows to facilitate chordal playing. The performance of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 we have here is cleanly delivered and technically polished. Intonation is pristine, and in the Fuga polyphonic lines are cleanly delineated. The Siciliano is ardently rendered. His Baroque chording will be a matter of personal taste, but I find his approach refreshing. I only wish that he had recorded the complete cycle.

The Beethoven sonata is the least successful item. The performance is rather deadpan and self-regarding, and lacks the sunny, amiable demeanour that Kreisler/Rachmaninov and Menuhin/Kempff bring to it.

It is the Bartók Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano which is the star of the show. Spivakovsky had a real affinity with this composer. Cast in two movements, the first is improvisatory and the violinist’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the subtle nuances and inflexions has exceptional appeal. The glissandi and portamenti, which pepper the movement, are idiomatic and never impede the flow. In the second movement, pizzicatos are crisply articulated. The aggressive propulsive rhythms of the brash dance are strikingly direct and confident. Throughout the performance of this complex structured work, I felt that there was a sense of purpose and direction, favourably comparing with that of Robert Mann and Leonid Hambro (Bartók Records BR 1922). The Rumanian Folk Dances are likewise compelling, proof that Spivakovsky warms to this music. Balsam’s malleable pianism is equally appealing.

The Beethoven and Bach works have been expertly transferred from a Columbia LP (ML 2089), whilst the Bartok is taken from a Concert-Hall (CHC 39). No notes are provided, but the listener is directed to relevant websites. Given the dearth of Spivakovsky on disc, this release is greatly appreciated.

Stephen Greenbank



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