By Jonathan Woolf, September 2006
There were three great commercial recordings of the Sibelius Concerto by women violinists in the decade between 1943 and 1952. The first was by Anja Ignatius in wartime Berlin (Symposium 1310). The second followed two years later when Ginette Neveu made her celebrated recording, one that has been multiply available over the years. And this is the third of the great triumvirate, happily restored to circulation. The slightly earlier 1940 Guila Bustabo traversal with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra and Fritz Zaun was on A Classical Record ARC37 and is also a stunner. Talking of which the hair-raising 1943 and very male Kulenkampff/Furtwängler on Music & Arts CD799 – try to hear it – was a live broadcast.
Wicks’s Sibelius is the stuff of legend. Absence from the catalogues has only increased enthusiasm for its return. And all three of these recordings bring powerfully different approaches to bear; the cool reserve of Ignatius, the fiery, digging-into-the-string passion of Neveu and Wicks’ expressive but not overblown drama, architecturally magnificent in its completeness.
She had the advantage of collaboration with Sixten Ehrling, with whom she gave numerous concerts. Ehrling also proves an adept and highly accomplished pianist in their more intimate recordings here. In the Concerto, with Ward Marston’s transfers that seem successfully to have stabilised pitch problems on earlier issues, we can savour their commanding strengths. The opening is full of the subtlest tonal colour. Orchestral counter themes register with naturalness and surety. The agitated little string figures that are often subsumed are here present as part of the living fabric of the orchestral life force of the music. In the slow movement we find Wicks melancholic without ostentation – no overtly externalised finger position changes or timbral disparities. She remains unaffectedly direct, and strongly moving. Power and momentum characterise the finale. Wicks is no metronome, of course, and her rubati are finely judged and thoroughly convincing. Personalised phrasing adds immeasurably to a performance that remains as laudable now as the day it was recorded.
Now Valen’s pocket concerto of 1940 is a real rarity. I’m not aware that it’s been reissued since 1949. A work of concision and immense power it owes a strong debt to the Berg in its accommodation with serialism. Only thirteen minutes in length, and that includes a cadenza, it manages to coalesce a tense, slightly clotted feel with more openly sprung lyric sections. The reappearance of the chorale-like them – finally on the brass – is a deeply moving one and adds to a feeling of lament and loss. For an up to date disc Arve Tellefsen has recorded the Valen on Sony Classical SK 89621, coupled with the 1997 Nordheim concerto.
The violin and piano pieces divide into the commercial HMV recordings with Ehrling recorded between 1949 and 1951 and unpublished Columbias with an unknown accompanist made in 1951. I assume this latter collection – five pieces – derives from Wicks’ own archive but as usual with Biddulph these days we get minimal discographic information.
Nigun has a burnished reserve – not as full of Hebraic fervour as many. Her Kabalevsky Improvisation is excellent at underscoring alternately its brittle and more reflective elements. The Shostakovich Preludes are in the familiar Tziganov arrangements – hear her silvery wit in the Tenth.
The unpublished pieces are a notable bonus. They’re in very slightly muffled sound but otherwise very presentable indeed. Her Sarasate is suave rather than dashing, and the pieces associated with Heifetz show a laid-back charm. This represents a cache of real significance for the Wicks collector.
Talking of which collectors should not overlook a CD devoted to rare Wicks material – Music & Arts 1160 which contains a broadcast performance of the finale of the Sibelius, coupled with a splendid Bruno Walter directed Beethoven Concerto. There are other important things here as well, including Nigun.
As noted above Ward Marston’s transfers are top class, with the pitch question in the Sibelius happily resolved, to my ears. Notes are by Nathaniel Vallois and equally classy. In fact this is a class act all round.