Sleeve Notes

Posted By on September 26, 2010

I recently purchased a Chandos CD – the Gerald Finzi violin and cello concertos. It’s a fine coupling of two works by the same composer recorded at different times.

The more recent recording, made in 1999, is of Tasmin Little playing the violin concerto. It’s been highly reviewed elsewhere, but I was interested, of course, in the violin. The sleeve notes give a potted biography of the player, and mention that she plays her 1757 Guadagnini. This was the last year Guadagnini was working in Milan. Opinions may differ, but to me these late Milanese Guadagnini violins are the most perfect he made. During my time at Sotheby’s we auctioned eight violins by this maker from his Milan period, including an almost perfect example from 1757 way back in July 1985. But of course we saw several times as much stuff as finally appeared in the auction catalogues. I remember, for example, the late David Bartov showing me another 1757 violin – this must have been in the late 1980’s.

The earlier recording, the cello concerto, was made in 1986 and is played by Raphael Wallfisch. It is refreshingly honest in that it does not amplify the solo instrument too artificially. Most recordings of the Dvorak or Elgar concertos, for example, lead the listener to believe that a single cello can, if necessary, overpower an entire orchestra. And there is a Heifitz recording in which the soloist is always louder than the orchestra. The culture of celebrity distorts the truth, as always. Inexperienced concert-goers, unused to live performances, are often shocked by how quiet the soloist is. After all, how can just one cello (or violin) be expected to compete with perhaps forty or so other string players, not to mention the combined woodwind and brasswind sections? True, solo instruments tend to be powerful – perhaps very powerful – they might even be twice as loud as an ordinary violin; but nowhere remotely near as loud as an orchestra.

Nonetheless the cello rings out clear and true. It’s a marvellous solo instrument. But, look as hard as you will, the sleeve notes don’t mention it. Now isn’t that curious? The reason, I suppose, is snobbery, because the cello concerned was new, made by Colin Irving, and not nearly as expensive as something by an old-master Italian.

There’s nothing wrong with new instruments. Stradivari never made an old one.

The Irving cello works just as well or better, and indeed the recording reminds me of another example of much the same thing, for the orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic, was led by Malcolm Stewart. Another time Malcolm made a wonderful live recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, and he was kind enough to send me a copy. He had various expensive violins, of course, but the instrument used on that occasion was made by Charles Buthod – now they are fairly common and very cheap indeed, compared with old Italian stuff. When I asked why he chose the Buthod he explained that, as it was a recording, and nobody could see it, well . . . he simply wanted the best-sounding violin.

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