Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

I knew this work from childhood, in the classic Heifetz version from RCA. As I’ve grown into a more mature critic, my opinions have migrated.

Mutter/KarajanFor a long time I was under the spell of Karajan and Mutter, who dig into the work with a serioso unmatched by the field. The tempi are slower, but perhaps the drama more exposed. And there is the overwhelming sound of the BPO, in all its richness, capturing every nuance of sonic dimension. But not the emotion. We are firmly in HvK’s world, with Mutter, but in comparison to several others….it is lacking.

Campoli, with Boult. An English touch, somehow both rich and light; Elgarian. Noble, not Germanic and heavy in its impact. Campoli’s tone delves deeper than Perlman or Francescatti, and Boult manages an ebb and flow that keeps the music flowing in a dramatic, but also delightful way with the accompaniment. There is less symphonic weight here compared to Karajan, but more storytelling. In the London Stereo Treasury pressing, there is also far more sonic depth and richness than the DGG digital press with HvK. It is astoundingly vivid. As with many of these later orange label reissues. This will not go into the eBay pile. And it presents a contrast not just with Mutter, but with Milstein, whose EMI I only recently got to know. Campoli appears to be available on CD only in an out-of-print specialty release. Hard to believe.

So now to Milstein. His EMI recordings were not issued early on CD, when I worked at Tower Records, and on LP they are among the most difficult to acquire. (He re-recorded the concerto with Claudio Abbado years later, in a much less compelling reading.) My copy of the EMI is a US Angel pressing, the prized Triangle stamper. Sound is absolutely pristene, with less surface noise than either the Campoli or the Mutter from later decades, though less sonic depth than the Campoli. Milstein floats with his light vibrato, a bit much at times perhaps, but ultimately conveying an elegance that blends with the drama of the work. This is a positively seductive reading, the violin tone drawing one in like a lover….in a way that that those of us who are vulnerable to the beauty of sound makes us literally weep. The second movement is a personal appeal, not a performance. There is a reason Milstein is different.

And then in the final movement he zips along…as capable of showing joy and exuberance as he is the intangibles of internal emotion.

I played this for my father some weeks ago, who raised me on the Classics, and he too was stunned. He knows the work but is not in the business of criticism. He knew nothing of Milstein. But after it passed all he had to say was “Bravo.”

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

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