Whether there is a shortage today of potentially "legendary" violinists to compete with the likes of Kreisler, Elman, Heifetz, Szigeti, Francescatti, Menuhin, Milstein, Oistrakh and Stern--whose careers substantially overlapped--is a moot point for the purposes of this column. The fact of the matter is that only a bare handful of today's violinists receive the exposure afforded by recordings.
"Debut recordings" by violinists on the major labels, while never as common as comparable programs from young pianists, were not always the rarities they are today. The interest of the recording companies--and possibly of the concertgoing public as well--wouldn't seem to be with violinists these days, Itzhak Perlman's celebrity status being the obvious exception.
The Soviet emigre Gidon Kremer is an anomaly: an anti-romantic, lacking a distinctive sound or interpretive personality, unlikely to send audiences into frenzies of adulation, yet one of today's busiest violinists, in the concert hall as well as the recording studio.
One recent Kremer release pairs Mozart's Concertos in D, K. 211, and G, K. 216, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading members of the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 415 482, LP or CD).
The concertos are played on modern instruments but in editions informed by the sort of stylistic know-how that goes into the best of today's period-instrument performances. Withal, the authenticsounding ornaments, lead-ins and cadenzas go for naught within the context of such pallid, dynamically undifferentiated, rhythmically unincisive readings as these.
A more congenial match of performer and repertory finds Kremer in a program of unaccompanied 20th-Century works inspired by the Paganini Caprices (Deutsche Grammophon 415 484, LP or CD). Its major attraction is "Caprice Variations" in which the contemporary American composer George Rochberg takes the themes of various Caprices and bends them into fantastic shapes that often emerge in the recognizable forms of works by Beethoven (the finale of the Seventh Symphony), Brahms (the first movement of the Violin Concerto), Mahler (the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony), a Schubert waltz, a bit of Grappelli-like jazzy schmaltz. It isn't always obvious precisely what Rochberg is varying (the program notes are woefully uninformative); but the half-hour-long trip through "Caprice Variations"--played with a degree of emotional engagement and variety of tone not often heard from Kremer--is sufficiently enjoyable without further elucidation.
Kremer also offers a more traditional sort of Paganini theme-and-variations exercise: "Paganiniana," Nathan Milstein's treatment of the familiar 24th Caprice, dutifully and cleanly executed rather than hurled out in a shower of sparks, as Milstein himself did. And there is also "A Paganini" (To Paganini), another of those trashings of the classics by Kremer's good friend, the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke.
After Kremer's stringency it's refreshing to turn to the fiery playing of Nathan Milstein himself. The master makes his compact disc debut in a digitally remastered coupling of two grand 1960s recordings, the wonderful, still underappreciated Dvorak Concerto and the pretty, all-but-forgotten A-minor Concerto of Karl Goldmark (Angel 47421, CD only). Milstein's marvelously secure, vibrantly energetic playing makes these works glow with rare brilliance. The Philharmonia Orchestra is sympathetically conducted by Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos (Dvorak) and Harry Blech (Goldmark).
The joyous insouciance that, as much his phenomenal technique, makes Itzhak Perlman today's preeminent violinist can be savored in recent compact disc reissues of two 1970s recordings: the Brahms Violin Concerto (Angel CDC 47166), a gorgeously warmhearted collaboration with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony, and the original, unadulterated 24 Caprices of Paganini's Opus 1 (Angel CDC 47166), treated not as display pieces pure and simple but as the strikingly original creations of an imaginative, forward-looking composer.
That 70-year-old Yehudi Menuhin is hors de combat even in today's none-too-numerous field is again evidenced in the traditional pairing of Beethoven's "Spring" and "Kreutzer" Sonatas (Angel CDC 47353, CD only). What lends this otherwise expendable display of labored technique and ungainly tone a measure of interest is the presence of the violinist's 35-year-old son Jeremy, a fluent, clearly sensitive pianist of a tastefully Romantic persuasion who, even while being the most accommodating of partners, manages to show up his famous father at every turn.
The "Spring," "Kreutzer" and equally deserving G-major (No. 8) Sonatas emerge unscathed in the interpretations of the French brother and sister team of violinist Nell and pianist Ivar Gotkovsky (Pyramid 1348, CD only).
Violinist Gotkovsky is occasionally given to rather square phrasing, but the tone she produces is large and secure, with vibrato used selectively, to make an expressive point, rather than ladled on indiscriminately. Ivar provides hearty, dramatic pianism that complements his sister's lower-key playing most effectively. Perlman-Ashkenazy this may not be, but these are artists who speak with their own clear, rather austere but eminently persuasive voices.