Spivakov's Brahms disappoints older recordings make up for it

April 10, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Brahms, Sonatas Nos. 1-3, performed by violinist Vladimir Spivakov and pianist Mikhail Rudy (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61390-2). Brahms, Sonatas Nos. 1-3, performed by violinist Gioconda de Vito and (in Nos. 1 and 3) pianist Edwin Fischer and (in Sonata No. 2) pianist Tito Aprea (Testament SBT 1024). Brahms, Sonatas Nos. 1-3, performed by violinist Zino Francescatti and pianist Robert Casadesus (Library of Congress CLC-3).

Anticipation yields to keen disappointment in the Brahms set by Vladimir Spivakov and Mikhail Rudy. Spivakov, now 49, ranked with Gidon Kremer as one of the most promising young violinists to emerge from the former Soviet Union about 20 years ago. He performed an unhackneyed repertory, bringing to familiar and unfamiliar works alike a superb virtuosity, substantial intellect and enormous tonal beauty. Rudy, 40, a Soviet emigre residing in Paris, has made several excellent Brahms recordings.

Spivakov seems to be the problem here. He has been spending more time on the podium than with the bow of late, and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto last year in Washington suggested that his violin playing has suffered because of his concentration on conducting. With its effortful playing, this disc confirms that impression. Moreover, Spivakov worries these pieces to death, attempting to tell us so much that he ends only by boring us.

The performances by Gioconda de Vito, once available on LP on the Angel label, have been out of print for well over 30 years. These are glorious readings that one hopes will restore the reputation of this Italian violinist, who was much admired by the pianist Glenn Gould and who retired much too early. Anyone who loves the way David Oistrakh played Brahms will enjoy these performances, with their generous but carefully controlled vibrato, emotional warmth and majestic breadth. The playing of both pianists -- the famous Fischer and the less well-known, but superb, Aprea -- is wonderful, and the recorded sound is excellent.

Much better-known than de Vito when they were performing, but now also all but forgotten, are the violinist Zino Francescatti and the pianist Robert Casadesus. From the 1940s until the early '60s, they were considered the embodiment of French violin and piano playing at their best, and they made many recordings together for Columbia (now Sony Classical), including a superb set of the Beethoven sonatas and equally fine performances of ** Ravel, Debussy, Faure and Franck.

The Brahms sonatas were not among the pieces they visited in the studio, and the provenance of these well-recorded performances are recitals in the 1940s and '50s at the Library of Congress. This Brahms playing could not be more different than that on the de Vito disc. In place of the large-scale gestures and gravitas of de Vito and her partners are a refinement and limpidity that one associates with Gallic good taste. These exquisite performances may not have the weight one associates with a Germanic vision of this music, but with their lean sweetness of tone and fine-grained articulation they achieve noble grandeur and exquisite lyricism.

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