Sometime in the next 25 or 30 years, we will pass the 500th anniversary of the invention of the violin. There may not be any elaborate public celebration, because nobody can say exactly when or where it happened, but it is one of the most important events in the history of music. And in a sense its anniversary is celebrated every time an orchestra responds to a downbeat or a string quartet sits down to play. Both would have been unthinkable, along with all the magnificent music composed for them -- nearly all the music we know -- if the violin and its relatives, the viola and cello, had not replaced the viols of various sizes, less agile instruments and (for all the special beauty of their sound) less brilliant in tone, less colorful and emotionally expressive. Try to imagine a Tchaikovsky symphony played on lutes, viols and recorders, and you begin to get an idea of the revolutionary thing that happened five centuries ago.
One musical phenomenon that was encouraged by the development of the violin was the rise of the virtuoso soloist, a trend that began in the 17th century with such composer-performers as Biber and Corelli and continues today with a new generation that includes Midori, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the brilliant jazz-classical crossover player Nigel Kennedy. There are, of course, virtuosos on the piano, the cello, the flute, but in most minds the word "virtuoso" conjures up the image of a man holding a violin -- perhaps the thin, vaguely sinister figure of Paganini or the aloof, patrician Heifetz.
An extraordinary collection of violin virtuoso recordings, focusing on the first third of the 20th century, has just been issued by Pearl, an English label that specializes in reissues of very old recordings. In the two volumes (three CDs each) of "The Recorded Violin: The History of the Violin on Record" (Pearl BVA I and BVA II), the violin connoisseur will find some mind-boggling treasures. Yehudi Menuhin asked not to be included in the collection because he thought his later recordings were more representative of his work; otherwise, among 110 selections by nearly 100 players, one can find 78 rpm recordings by nearly every significant violinist of the first half of this century including quite a few -- Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Ricci, Elman, Francescatti, Campoli -- who lived on to record in stereo. There are also (sometimes veiled by restricted sound and surface noise) some players who are legendary.
Until I picked up this set, I did not know that there were any recordings by Joseph Joachim, who was virtually a co-creator of the Brahms Violin Concerto (check the manuscript, published in facsimile by the Library of Congress) or by Leopold Auer. Auer is best known as the man who pronounced the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto unplayable after it had been dedicated to him. But he also taught a whole generation of Russian violinists (estimates of the number of his students run as high as 500), including Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist and Milstein, and his students' students now dominate the international violin scene. In the two Auer selections included (from private recordings), he sounds capable of learning the Tchaikovsky concerto.
Also prominently featured are violinist-composers such as Sarasate, Ysaye, Enesco, Kreisler, even Grigoras Dinicu playing his own ubiquitous Hora Staccato in vivid Gypsy style. Most of the selections are little encore pieces, not nearly as often heard now as they were 50 years ago. The sound is variable, but the wealth of documentation is enormous. The program notes by Tully Potter, from whose collection the selections were taken, are a mini-history of violin playing in the early 20th century.
One violinist who is honored with the rare distinction of two pieces in the collection is Maud Powell (1867-1920), one of the first women and one of the first Americans to attract international attention as a violinist. She studied with Joachim and (as the records clearly reveal) surpassed her teacher, certainly in technique and perhaps in musical insight. Interest in Powell has been revived recently by an excellent biography, "Maud Powell, Pioneer American Violinist," by Karen A. Shaffer and Neva Garner Greenwood. All of Powell's available recordings, which include some remarkable musicmaking, are available on three compact discs from the Maud Powell Foundation, 5333 N. 26th St., Arlington, Va. 22207.
One virtuoso who came along too late to be included in the Pearl collection (his first recordings date from the mid-1940s) is Isaac Stern, who celebrated his 70th birthday last month. In honor of that occasion, and to reactivate the CBS archives it now owns, the Sony label has launched "The Isaac Stern Collection," which will eventually be a comprehensive survey of his recordings over 45 years -- including, one hopes, more than one version of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he has presented from strikingly different viewpoints at various stages of his career.
The first two three-disc volumes (SM3K 45952 and 45956) augur a very exciting series. Even when he is just plain wrong stylistically (as in some Bach and Vivaldi with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra), Stern's playing is luscious, and when he is in his element (as he is with everything from Mendelssohn to Prokofiev in these sets), Stern is in a class by himself. His extraordinary technique is not quite equal to that of Heifetz, but he surpasses Heifetz in his emotional identification with the music and his openness to new ideas. This includes not only the way he plays the best music of his own time (a point we will get to in later volumes, when he reaches, for example, Penderecki) but also in the way he has continued to grow and change in relation to the music he plays. In contrast, the solo interpretation in the 1940 Heifetz recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with Toscanini (RCA 60261-2-RG), is almost note-for-note identical with his much later stereo recording with Charles Munch.
The first two volumes contain a lot of Stern's basic repertoire, including, in Vol. 1, the concertos of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Brahms (both the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto with cellist Leonard Rose), as well as Ravel's exciting "Tzigane." For my taste, though, the most essential Stern is the 20th-century music in Vol. 2 -- above all, the two Prokofiev concertos, Bernstein's Serenade and the Sibelius concerto. For dessert, Vol. 2 also has dazzling performances of some slighter pieces: Lalo's colorful "Symphonie espagnole," Bruch's First Concerto and Wieniawski's Second, Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" and Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Listening, one is constantly reminded what a monument Stern's protean personality has been in our musical life. This collection is shaping up as a fitting tribute to a great figure.
One of history's first violin virtuosos was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), who worked at the court of Salzburg about a century before Mozart. The violin of Biber's time, with gut strings and relatively slack tuning, was not suited to the kind of fireworks Stern explores in the Sibelius or Prokofiev concertos, but Biber advanced the instrument's technique in other ways. A new recording of his "Rosenkranz" sonatas on original instruments (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77102, two CDs) is (in a rather specialized way) one of the most beautiful recordings I have heard this year and a historic revelation. These sonatas are program music, reflecting on episodes in the life of Jesus Christ as arranged in the Catholic rosary meditations and portrayed in a series of miniature engravings that are reproduced in the excellent booklet of notes.
The sonatas use scordatura (various forms of non-standard tuning) in marvelously creative and expressive ways, and the performance explores minutely the nuances of the music, its mystical overtones and the pure sensuous delight of archaic instrumental sound. Before hearing these discs, I cannot recall encountering the work of violinist Fransjosef Maier, but I hope he will continue to record music of this vintage. On this disc, he has an excellent continuo accompaniment including baroque organ, cello and theorbo (or archlute), the last played by its supreme master, Konrad Junghanel, who is popular with Washington early music fans.
At an opposite extreme from the solo virtuoso, the violin and its relatives reached another sort of pinnacle in the string quartet -- music specially notable for its intimacy, subtlety and (on occasions) emotional complexity. The greatest string quartets, most lovers of chamber music believe, are those composed by Beethoven after he learned the craft in the six youthful ones of Op. 18. The remainder of his quartets, including the three of Op. 59, the Op. 133 "Grosse Fuge," the "Harp" and "Serioso" quartets and the five extraordinary works with which he closed his career, have just been reissued on CD in the outstanding performances recorded by the Guarneri Quartet between 1963 and 1969 (RCA 60457-2-RG and 60458-2-RG, three CDs each). Those who know this music and the work of this quartet, which plays often in Washington, need be told only that these CDs exist.