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The rhetoric of violinists past….

Unlike the protagonist of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” film, classical music listeners don’t need to wait for a mysterious car to pull up to take them to an earlier time. No, I’m not talking about how the great masterpieces take us back in time. They don’t. They redefine our own time. But the actual sounds of decades past can be time travel indeed, but not just any of them. Polished commercial recordings, however valuable, are often less revealing than the tapes and discs of live performances that didn’t have posterity breathing down necks of the performers.

Example: “The Art of Roman Totenberg from Bach to Webern,” a two-disc set recently out on the Arbiter label celebrating the Polish-born violinist, now alive and over 100, who was part of the cultivated German violin tradition that dissolved after World War II. He made few commercial recordings. But his recitals were recorded, and that’s what Arbiter has published for the first time.

Totenberg (whose daughter is NPR’s Nina Totenberg) had no Heifetz-ian career and perhaps felt no need to change with the times. So in these 1960 performances, you have (preserved in modern sound) a violinist playing Brahms and Debussy with a fat Russian tone and the kind of fingerslides that other violinists had weeded out of their playing long ago, even old-world stylists such as Mischa Elman.

Totenberg uses this technique judicioiusly.  Suddenly you’re sliding down to a harmonic resolution with a momentum and gravity that would never come from the more typical leaps of later violinist. And sliding up to a climax was more than building a peak in tension but making an ascension with a tail wind.

 One of the basic concepts of ethnomusicology is that remnants of lost culture are found, most purely, far from the source. And that’s particularly true of 20th century Germanic culture, which was scattered when Hitler came to power in 1933 and then buried along with him in 1945. Totenberg still has these stylistic earmarks, but they’re not condomints. The fingerslides were embedded in his playing with inextricable intensity. His personality is fierce with a meticulously wroght vision of what the music was saying.

“Totenberg plays from a state of deep listening,” wrote Arbiter founder Allen Evans in the disc notes, “his hands [are] a medium leading to his inner ear.” Beautifully put. But that’s manifested in a way of changing tempo that makes a phrase fall into place as never before. Any given violin line in Brahms’ Violin Sonata Op. 108 is like a journey through a number of different emotional climates, ending with a quiet echo variation on what came before, one that most violinist often take for granted. Totenberg takes special note of such passages by slowing the tempo. In doing so, all that came before has a deeper emotional and musical perspective. No sequential repetition was meaningless or existed only to complete the architecture of a musical idea.

Perhaps Totenberg’s boldness comes from having less to lose. In an age dominated by the radiance of Jascha Heifetz, Totenberg had a tough tone quality that was all about honesty and so not interested in charm. His voice was similar to Maria Callas’ – a messenger of the awful and glorious truth. One big difference: Callas made recordings in visible places. Not so much with Totenberg. But I can’t stop listening to what recordings he made.

Such thoughts arose during a recent car trip to and from the premiere of that haphazard, possibly unfinished opera The Dark Sisters by Nico Muhly. Totenberg was my antidote – along with a few other voices from the past. The Paganini Quartet is one of the great ensembles of its kind in the 1950s. But in 1946, leader Henri Temianka gave a complete Beethoven sonata cycle at the Library Congress with Leonard Shure, recently issued by DOREMI. Again, I heard a personality unlike any other, a warm mellow tone, thoroughly integrated and seemingly without a wasted overtone. His manner is mellifulous, conversational and irresistable – until a bit of samenesss set in . Then I realized that maybe all ten Beethoven sonatas weren’t meant to be heard in a single sitting by any violinist, no matter how great.

Further back in time was Arthur Catterall and William Murdoch, a violin/piano sonata duo that recorded in the early and mid-1920 and now re-appearing thanks to Pristine Classical. It was another rabbit hole: The portamento finger slides were much more generously applied, giving the music a bit of a seasawing effect. Fascinating.

However, I find the Catterall Quartet recordings say more to me than the violinist’s solo outings. Left on his own, Catterall exercised a manner of objectivity that suggested he was merely reporting on the music rather than interpreting. At least now. This was a time when conductor Felix Weingartner led a backlash to interpretive extremes that came out of the era of Wagner; he was the John Eliot Gardiner of his time. What we no hear as detachment may well have been heard, in the 1920s, as admirable purity.

Granted, none of these listening adventures are the same as actually meeting these people – in the manner dramatized in the Woody Allen movie. But would you want to? I’d hate to discover that Alfred Cortot really had a drug habit. I wouldn’t want to run into Christian Ferras in a gambling casino. Recordings are close enough – and get to the heart of matters so much that, in comparison, “Midnight in Paris” seems like thin soup.


  1. Thank you for this article.
    I share in your feelings. Additionally thank you for mentioning the Shure / Temianka discs.
    That was music making of the highest kind. Hard to imagine being recorded LIVE probably with one mic and sounding fantastic.
    As a pupil of Leonard Shure I might be partial, but I love the performances.

    • I wasn’t sure if he was still teaching – and was a little afraid to ask. At the moment, I’m listening to his Totenberg’s LPs of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. Very old school. Just how I like it.

  2. Roman is still teaching at Boston University, full of energy, commitment and a great sense of humor!
    Long live Roman Totenberg!

  3. Thank you too for this article. Many of my musician friends in orchestras around the country have been privately noticing the absence of conscious directed feeling -not the same as emotion- in the playing of today’s young professional players. Do you know the playing of the violinist Tibor Varga? He was born in 1921 and died in 2002, so he is part of Shure’s generation. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest with Carl Flesch and Jenö Hubay. He made his first public appearance at the age of six and performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at the age of 10 and made his first recordings at the age of 13 -all without the aid of Suzuki training.
    Tibor Varga gave the premières of violin concertos by Béla Bartók, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg throughout Europe and other continents. Ernst Krenek, Max Méreaux, Matyas Seiber, Jose de Almeida Prado and other composers dedicated works to him. Writing to Varga about a performance of his Violin Concerto, Arnold Schönberg wrote : “I wish to be younger to be able to write more music for you.”
    Varga’s use of the slide and vibrato and changing rhythms all reflect a way of playing which is so intimate with a way of living as a human being, in privacy, that most musicians in North America have forgotten it ever existed. I was lucky enough to be accepted as one of his students for a while. Can I recommend his Tchaikovsky to you?
    I really recommend this Tibor Varga channel on YouTube.

    • Yes, I love Varga – I have fond memories of his Mozart – and am glad to hear about his You Tube channel. Hilary Hahn once told me that she was starting to use finger slides as a student at Curtis, but her teacher, Jascha Brodsky, warned her away from them. Hmmmm.

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