The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors

By Henry Fogel, Nov/Dec 2015 

“This set is a treasure for so many reasons that it is difficult to enumerate (or even prioritize) them. I suppose that the most important reason for its significance is the expansion of our knowledge of the art of Camilla Wicks, who did not have the career she might have because of her own reticent personality and her decision to retire and focus on her five children. But it is also a treasure because it will introduce some people to some very important and under-valued pieces of music: Bloch’s First Sonata, Taillefaire’s Sonata, the tiny encore piece by Bjarne Brustad, and some of the other miniatures chief among them.

Camilla Wicks was born in 1928 and was, as of this writing (in May, 2015), still alive, having retired from teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory in 2006. She began her career as a child prodigy, débuting with the New York Philharmonic at age 13. In 1951 she married, and for many years after that performed only intermittently because of the demands of raising five children, and of being a wife in the climate of the 1950s. By the mid-1960s, Wicks had so convinced herself that she would not be able to maintain a career that she sold her Stradivarius. Then her marriage broke up and she was left to raise her children. She determined to rebuild her career for reasons probably as much financial as anything else. Her friend Ruggero Ricci gave her a violin, and she began to perform again, and also took on more teaching. She never achieved the stardom she merited, though she did make a famous recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Sixten Ehrling. (It is out of print now, and one copy is available at Amazon for just under $400)!

What is revealed in this comprehensive survey of Wicks’ career is a front rank artist who merits a greater public reputation than was granted her. Her technique is as close to flawless as humans get, and her intelligence and interpretive breadth are clearly those of a major artist. Early in her career she may well have focused on her virtuosity—the 1946 Hollywood Bowl performance of Wieniawski’s Second Concerto finds her occasionally leaving even the alert Stokowski behind (the excellent notes indicate that Wicks and Stokowski did not get along). Nonetheless, her brilliance in the finale of the Concerto is thrilling to experience. Wicks’ sound is a focused tone, without the plushness of an Oistrakh; it is perhaps closer in sound to someone like Szigeti. She does use a wide range of color and vibrato for expressive purposes.

As she matured, her approach to music became more reflective, and the correspondence from Ernest Bloch that is reproduced in the accompanying booklet reveals the enormous respect he had for her. It is a shame that although she learned the Bloch Concerto, she never performed it. But she believed that the First Sonata was the greater work, and the performance here, with very sensitive and alert accompanying from Roslyn Frantz, leaves a major impression on the listener. Wicks is utterly committed to the score, and plays as if possessed.

Although it is spread out onto different discs, we do get what must be most or all of a 1986 recital Wicks gave in Ann Arbor, with one of the world’s finest collaborative pianists, Martin Katz. One sign of the musical intelligence of Wicks is the pair of performances of sonatas by Beethoven and Richard Strauss from that same recital. The rigor and discipline heard in the Beethoven G Major Sonata is never rigid, but nonetheless clearly a performance that emphasizes structure and rhythmic pulse. The Strauss Sonata has about it an appropriate freedom and flexibility that demonstrates an artist who digs deeply to get inside each piece of music, rather than slapping the same interpretive profile on everything. She must have loved the second movement of the Strauss (marked ‘Improvisation: Andante cantabile’) because it appears 13 years earlier on a recital she gave in the state of Washington. These two performances are illustrative of the change in Wicks’ musical outlook, the earlier being more urgent and impulsive, the latter more reflective.

Wicks was consistent in her interest in contemporary music, and also Scandinavian music (given her father’s Norwegian roots). She made a brilliant recording of Bjarne Brustad’s Violin Concerto, and regularly performed works by other important Scandinavians like Klaus Egge, Harald Saeverud, and even her father (Ingwald Wicks) whose ‘Ode to the Desert’ is heard here, and is quite attractive. The Grieg Sonata, assembled from two performances, is deeply communicative and compelling.

There are many other highlights here beyond those already mentioned: The Ravel and Debussy sonatas, the glorious reading of the Fauré, the absolutely unbuttoned ‘Tzigane’ from 1963 in Dallas, the delightful setting of Nin’s Spanish Songs, and the discovery of the early concerto recordings with Fritz Busch and William Steinberg conducting. The Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concerti may well have had more reflective performances, but rarely more brilliant ones.

Wicks’ technical mastery means that she could concentrate on her interpretive view of the music, without having to worry about how to achieve her ends. Throughout these five discs, one never hears a ‘phoned in’ performance. You might agree or disagree with this or that detail, but you are aware consistently that this is music making that matters, music making where the performer is deeply committed to the idea of communicating her view of the music directly to the listener.

Ward Marston’s transfers, with some additional work by Aaron Z. Snyder, resulted in excellent sound, particularly for the earlier recordings, and a surprising consistency throughout given the wide variety of sources. As indicated, the accompanying booklet is up to Music & Arts’ usual very high standard of informative and insightful commentary. What a joy!”