BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D, op. 77.  TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D, op. 35.
Erica Morini, violinist/Royal Philharmonic Orch; Artur Rodzinski, cond.

WESTMINSTER   471 200 (M) (ADD) TT: 70:35

Who would have thought it? The Brahms and the Tchaikovsky -- premiered, I believe, within a year of one another -- original audiences saw as supremely antithetical. If you liked one, you couldn't possibly like the other. The Brahms concerto was labeled as audience-unfriendly and took a long time indeed to become a piece violinists had to learn. The Tchaikovsky took a bit less time to make its way, thanks in no small measure to Leopold Auer, who (with Tchaikovsky safely dead) made certain cuts in the last movement and rewrote several passages throughout the concerto for greater "violinability." Now, of course, these concerti are popular as lollipops. They no longer seem antithetical, but as supremely lyrical. They differ, mainly in that Tchaikovsky tends to think in whole, song-like themes, while Brahms makes songs out of symphonic bits and pieces.

Nevertheless, I find the Brahms a particularly tough nut, at least its first movement, whose profusion of musical motifs (at least six) and attendant variations and recombinations tend to hide from me the narrative thrust. Certain performers, notably Ginette Neveu and David Oistrakh, clear away the hedges for me, and, miraculously, appear to "just sing." For the Brahms strangely combines architectural complexity with a kind of straightforward lyricism. I once heard Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg both rhapsodizing over the beauties of this concerto and despairing that in her lifetime she would ever be able to realize the "intensity of every note."

My father, like many Jewish boys of a certain age, was put through violin lessons, on the off-chance that he would become another Heifetz. It didn't happen, but he did pick up something about violin technique. I remember us watching Erica Morini on television, back in the days not only of "Voice of Firestone" and nation-wide Bernstein broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic, but also even of Ed Sullivan. Morini, with Ed Sullivan's studio band augmented to faux-symphony orchestra, played an abbreviated movement (probably the finale) of the Tchaikovsky. My father could hardly keep in his chair. "Wow!" and "She's incredible!" liberally punctuated the performance. My mother kept trying to shush him. My sister and I were giggling, of course, which only encouraged my father's enthusiastic concert deportment. Obviously, I don't remember much of Morini. But I do know her Tchaikovsky garnered near-universal raves in the United States. Still, she never had a superstar career here. Listening to this disc, I can't see why she didn't catch on.

Her tone is heroic, perhaps a little cold, her technique flawless. Allied to these is an ability to "make sense" of the music, to get from here to there, and not always in an obvious way. In this case, her technique opened up possibilities of interpretation unavailable to other violinists. There's also a rhythmic excitement to her playing, even in slow passages, as if current ran through the strings. I liked her Tchaikovsky, but her Brahms bowled me over. She conveys the rather complex architecture of the work (the first paragraph of the work, which sounds like a song, consists of all the motifs of the first subject group, played one after the other) in a way that sounds inevitable. But it's not some pedantic lecture, either. The performance has plenty of sweet singing and bravura as well. Violinists tell me that her Beethoven is even better. The orchestra, although rough and heavy in spots, is never inappropriately so and, more important, matches Morini's drive.

In contrast, the Tchaikovsky, though fine, is nothing special. Indeed, the slow movement seems almost routine, as if the relative dearth of notes leads to a decline in the musical interest. The first movement fails to reach a big enough climax, and we really have to wait for the lightning-quick finale for the performers to find the groove. Rodzinski's Royal Philharmonic provides a rhythmically sharp, but not exactly thrilling accompaniment, although my lack of enthusiasm could stem from the recorded sound.  The sound, though not in the category of "historical," some listeners (spoiled by Hyperion and Telarc, among others) may find offputting. It's very early stereo (1956). The RCA Heifetz Tchaikovsky of 1957 sports much better sound, but that's a crucial year. Recording engineers learned a lot in that time.

I remember Rodzinski as a terrifically exciting conductor of late Romantic (particularly his Tchaikovsky) and Modern music. His recordings seem mostly to have issued on obscure labels only, and there don't seem to be a lot of them. He seems to me a conductor well worth reviving.

S.G.S.