By Gary Lemco, June 2015
Upheld by many as a regal presence amongst her peers, violinist Camilla Wicks (b. 1928) cultivated a stellar career in the dozen years following World War II. At the peak of her fame she retired from the concert stage to devote herself to her family. Upon resuming her career, she remained an outstanding if intermittent performer for several more decades. Wicks made few commercial recordings besides a famed 1952 performance of the Sibelius Concerto (on Biddulph 80218-2). This Music & Arts set spans five decades and a vast range of repertoire, the most comprehensive collection of her concert performances so far assembled, a major expansion of her extant discography and an excellent complement to the previous issue on Music & Arts (CD 1160) that features her Beethoven Violin Concerto with Bruno Walter from 1953.
Perhaps the most natural place to begin lies in her performance of her “patented” Concerto in A Minor, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber, once more in (unspecified date) collaboration with Sixten Ehrling and the Radio Stockholm Symphony. Wicks provides a virile combination of lyricism and muscular drive, and the orchestral support from Ehrling bears his broad, fiery imprimatur. The American, neo-Romantic sensibility of the Concerto retains its integrity, while the obvious sympathy of the performers saturates every measure. Wicks literally consumes the difficulties of the last movement with unbuttoned relish. On an even greater level of monumentality, audition the truly opulent Brahms Violin Concerto in D from the Norwegian Radio, a performance led by Ari Rasilainen, c. 1995. The blazing performance never loses its sense of urgent architecture, mounted on a grand scale, and easily competitive with my own favorite renditions by Senofsky, Grumiaux, Francescatti, and Milstein.
Wicks maintained a persistent musical curiosity and sense of artistic novelty, and we can enjoy her excursions into rare repertory; and, in respect of her searching, “crusader” spirit, Disc No. 4 – with its predominantly Gallic repertory – may qualify as the most musically rewarding of the set. Wicks opens with an incandescent reading of Chausson’s liquidly rapturous Poeme from a Dallas concert (26 February 1963) with piano collaboration from Albert Hirsch. That same concert yields a manically spitfire Tzigane of Ravel on a par with the great ones by Francescatti, Heifetz, and Nadien.The potent fluency of the realization easily suggests Heifetz, but without the dynamic mannerisms that sometimes plague his interpretations.
From the Round Top Festival (1988), Wicks brilliantly plays – executes on musical asbestos – the often punishing solo “Ballade” Sonata in D Minor of Eugene Ysaye, dedicated to Georges Enescu. Following the severe lines of the Ysaye we have the darkly erotic strains the Faure A Major Sonata (24 March 1985) from a San Francisco appearance with pianist Miles Graber. The second movement Andante inhabits a rarified universe of its own.
The Sonata No. 1 (1921) by Les Six member Germaine Tailleferre waxes more adventurous, a four-movement work that ardently expresses the composer’s fondness for its dedicatee, violinist Jacques Thibaud. The performance from San Francisco (15 October 1990), in slightly distant sonics, enjoys the piano artistry of Brian Connelly. Taillefaire favors long-held notes in the violin part under which the keyboard elicits erotically liquid figures. The rhythmic flirtatiousness of the second movement, Scherzo: Pas tres vite et sans rigueur, proves most captivating. The disc concludes with Paul Kochanski’s bravura transcription of Four Spanish Songs of Joaquin Nin from Ann Arbor (11 February 1986) with Martin Katz, piano. The palpably amorous languor of the opening Montanesa proceeds to a frenetic Tonada Murciana, a dreamy and throaty Saeta, and the flamenco-style Granadina, in which the Wicks guitar, gypsy effects invoke shades of Jose Greco at his best.
For the Wicks sympathy for the “Northern” repertory, akin to her legendary Sibelius Concerto, we have an impassioned reading of the Grieg C Minor Sonata (c. 1947) with Robert Levin, in which Grieg’s natural songs resonate with aspects of Norwegian Dances and Peer Gynt. An usual encore item, Trollkvenna by Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978), displays a “whirlwind” or “windmill” effect that Wicks further exploits (from the Hollywood Bowl, 18 August 1953) in her commercial reading of that composer’s Concerto No. 4 (on Simax Classics PSC 1185). If Poland and Russian fall under the “Northern” aegis, then the two Wieniawski concertos, the No. 2 in D Minor with Stokowski (in fair sound from the Hollywood Bowl, 14 August 1946), and the No. 1 in F-sharp Minor (from Anaheim, with pianist Horace Martinez, 10 August 1980) prove equally effective from two distinct periods in her career. The latter concerto had an early recording advocate in Michael Rabin. The more familiar Scherzo-Tarantelle (4 November 1973) packs the same energy we know from the youthful Henryk Szeryng.
From the Russian school, we have another appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D (18 August 1953, with William Steinberg), the same concert that supplies the Brustad encore. The cut last movement in the Tchaikovsky serves only as a minor flaw in an otherwise electric performance. From the transcriber Dmitry Tsiganov, we have Four Preludes of Shostakovich, Op. 34 (11 February 1986), a concert with Martin Katz seemingly intact, since it includes the Richard Strauss E-flat Sonata, Op. 18 and the Beethoven G Major Sonata, Op. 96.
An originally cold-climate composer, the Swiss Ernest Bloch, befriended Camilla Wicks – much as he had violin leader Sidney Griller – whom he had met through the intermediary Louis Persinger, who had encouraged Wicks to master the Baal Shem Suite’s Nigun. The composer himself complimented Wicks on her Nigun and upon the Sibelius Concerto, which he praised for its “color without any false sentimentality.” The recorded performance of Bloch’s Sonata No. 1 (Fullerton, 1980) with Roslyn Frantz will bear fruitful comparison with any of the work in Bloch committed to record by Heifetz, Milstein, Gingold and other select artists of refined taste and immaculate technique.
The remaining works, which include a rare Ravel posthumous Sonata with Neal Kurtz and the Debussy G Minor Sonata from the same program (5 April 1991); wonderful Spanish showpieces by Sarasate in the best Ricci tradition; and two charming Chopin nocturnes in transcriptions by Milstein and Wilhelmj, each certify a violin player of noble first rank. The icing on this special cake comes in the form of a personal token, from 4 November 1973, Ode to the Desert by our artist’s own father, Ingwald Wicks (1892-1967), a piece of no small charm. —