Rediscovering Michael Rabin

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MICHAEL RABIN: A GENIUS ON THE VIOLIN / RAVEL: Tzigane (Rapsodie de Concert).1,5 PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1.1,6 SAINT-SAËNS: Havanaise.1,7 Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso.4 BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy.1,5 TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D.1,7 GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto in a min 1,6 WIENIAWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 1 in f# min.1,5 J.S. BACH: Solo Violin Sonata No. 3. BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 8.8 FAURÉ: Violin Sonata No. 1.8 DEBUSSY: Le plus que lente (arr. Roques).9 PROKOFIEV: Love for Three Oranges: March (arr. Heifetz).9 MENDELSSOHN: Violin concerto in e min.1,5 MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 4.2 CRESTON: Violin Concerto No. 23 / Michael Rabin, vln; 1Philharmonia Orch.; 2Denver Symphony Orch.; 3Los Angeles Philharmonic Orch.; 4Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orch.; 5Adrian Boult, 6Lovro von Matačić, 7Alceo Galliera, 4Felix Slatkin, 2Saul Caston, 3Georg Solti, cond; 8Lothar Broddack, 9Leon Pommers, pno / Profil PH20003

EMI Paganini coverPAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Michael Rabin, vln / EMI 67998, also available for free streaming on YouTube.

This new set from Profil is more or less a reduction of the six-CD set of all of Rabin’s concerto recordings, a set I have never heard, with the addition of two live performances from 1960. In fact, I admit to having heard of Rabin for at least the past 30 or so years without actually having heard him. I suppose that because prior to that his discs were relatively scarce in the record store bins and I sort of assumed that if he wasn’t a presence on classical radio—and he wasn’t—that much of what I heard about him was over-hyped. Thus, this is my first exposure to him.

Rabin ‘s father George was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. He began studying the violin at age seven, actually a little late for a prodigy, and after a lesson with Jascha Heifetz the older violinist recommended that he study with Ivan Galamian, who he said had “no weaknesses, never.” Rabin began studying with Galamian at the Meadowmount School of Music, a seven-week summer school founded by the latter in Lewis (mailing address Westport) New York and then followed him into Juilliard as his prize pupil. Rabin made his professional debut in 1950 at the age of 13 in Carnegie Hall, playing the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5 with the National Orchestral Association conducted by one of Toscanini’s protégés, Leon Barzin. Rabin returned to Carnegie Hall in November 1951, now aged 15, playing the Paganini D Major Concerto under Dmitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic. His career was well and truly launched, and over the next 12 years he went from triumph to triumph. At one Carnegie Hall recital in the late 1950s, however, he suddenly lost his balance and fell forward. This was an early sign of a neurological condition that limited his career after 1962. He eventually had to severely limit his public playing, stopped recording in1960, and died in January 1972 at the tragically young age of 35, when he fell in his apartment, hit his head, and suffered a concussion. Violinist-critic Robert Maxham has reported that the New York Times obituary, which said that he died from an epileptic seizure, is not true.

RabinWikipedia, from which I gleaned the information in the above paragraph, describes Rabin’s style as “Romantic,” but although he played many of the 19th-century works that formed his core repertoire with a warmer tone than Heifetz—and just a bit more prominent (but quick) vibrato—his style, to my ears, was no-nonsense. Rabin exhibited none of the lingering quality which such earlier violinists as Erika Morini tended to display, but was very much in the Szigeti-Heifetz mold except for his warmer tone. And by God, was he a dazzler with technique! I’ve seen reviews written online that compare him, particularly in the Paganini Caprices, to Heifetz, but I can only liken him to the younger Heifetz of the late 1910s through the late ‘20s, when his playing was rather fierier than that of the 1930s and ‘40s. Rabin seemed to combine, at least to my ears, the best qualities of both Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin, which for me puts him in a class with the equally tragic Guila Bustabo, who sadly left us far fewer recordings due to her mother’s horrid demand that she perform almost exclusively in Nazi-run countries during the 1930s and ‘40s. Like Bustabo, Rabin played with an almost manic fire, almost tearing up the strings of his instrument with the most incredible spiccato, double stops and other devices that often drive young violinists to despair. Indeed, Rabin’s recording of the Paganini Concerto No. 1 compares favorably to Bustabo’s version in terms of technique and fire, though conductor von Matačić conducts the music more slowly than Fritz Zaun did for Bustabo (or Michel Sasson for Alexandre Dubach on Claves). Von Matačić also conducts a fairly staid version of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, not nearly as good as on either of Bronislaw Huberman’s performances.

Thank goodness Rabin became world-renowned at such an early age, else we would surely not have such a large legacy to enjoy, at least not in terms of well-engineered commercial recordings with the renowned Philharmonia Orchestra in their prime (when both concertmaster Manoug Parikian and first horn Dennis Brain were with them). One thing I noticed in his playing was his absolutely perfect pitch, so accurate in fact that, especially in Paganini, those extreme high-range passages almost sound like dog whistles despite the fact that his tone is still quite full even way up high. The recording technology of his day simply could not capture the extremes of his altissimo playing with complete accuracy.

Rabin used portamento sparingly, and only when the score called for it. In this respect, too, he was closer to Heifetz, Szigeti and Bustabo, and not a progenitor of weepiness or sentimentality. Perhaps one reason why Rabin was not quite as highly touted during his active career as he has been since his death is that he still had Heifetz (and Menuhin, as well as David Oistrakh) to contend with, and they weren’t going away just yet. Had he lived a normal lifespan, I think he would surely have inherited Heifetz’ mantle after the older violinist retired in 1972. Also, had Rabin not had to severely limit his playing after the early ‘60s, I’m sure that Heifetz would have included him as second violinist in his chamber music recordings for RCA in 1966-68, which would also have furthered his reputation.

One thing I want to dispel right now is the ugly rumor, which has circulated for decades, that Rabin suffered from mental illness. I heard this several times during the late 1980s and 1990s, usually passed around verbally by musicians but occasionally in print, and it’s just not so. But Rabin did suffer from depression, caused in part by his overbearing mother and partly because he was never allowed to live a normal life and date women but had to practice six to eight hours every day. This led to his being put on a string of anti-depressants such as Miltown and Valium, which may also have led to his vertigo problems. As for his repertoire, he was locked into Romantic works because, as he often complained in interviews, that was what the impresarios insisted on, thus he felt really honored when modern American composer Paul Creston dedicated his Second Violin Concerto to him, and that is on this album, too. This was one reason why he refused to renew his EMI contract, but instead switched to American Capitol. One piece that I really felt was rather superfluous to include here was the inferior (and rather long) Bruch Scottish Fantasy, which is in-one-ear-and-out-the-other garbage music, even when played by an artist of Rabin’s stature. On the other hand, he made more of the often over-romanticized Glazunov Concerto than most violinists do.

CD 3 consists of works with piano: the Bach Sonata No.3 for solo violin, the Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 8, the Faure Sonata No. 1, Debussy’s La plus que lente and Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, along with the orchestrally-accompanied Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso of Saint-Saëns with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Rabin plays the Bach Sonata in a very Romantic style that is now quite dated, though it was considered valid in his time, with smooth, rounded phrasing and less aggressive attacks. It’s OK, but not nearly as lively as the recording by Tomás Cotik on Centaur. I wish that Profil had included his excellent recordings of the Ysaÿe Solo Violin Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4 in its place. By contrast, however, the only thing dated in his performance of the Beethoven sonata is the sound quality, particularly the odd, tubby sonics surrounding pianist Lothar Braddock, a name that seems to have slipped into obscurity though he plays very well. This is as lively a performance of this work as you’re likely to hear, on a par with the superb Henri Temianka-Leonard Shure Beethoven sonata cycle and a much better credit to Rabin than the Bach sonata. The Faure sonata, also with Braddock, is played with similar intensity. Rabin’s rhapsodic cries of ecstasy in the third movement are particularly moving. The Saint-Saëns is very well-played, and truth be told, Felix Slatkin was a better conductor for the orchestral repertoire than von Matačić. Between Slatkin and Rabin, the music really takes off in a way I’ve never heard in any other performance. It almost sounds like a Heifetz-Toscanini performance, except in stereo sound. Les plus que lente is quite good, the Prokofiev March lively and jaunty.

The last CD opens with a fairly good account of the Mendelssohn Concerto, well conducted by Adrian Boult with plenty of energy albeit slower than I normally like to hear it. The Mozart Fourth Concerto is a live performance from 1960 with the Detroit Symphony led by one Saul Caston, a name new to me. Caston was apparently an associate conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra under both Stokowki and Ormandy who assumed control of the orchestra in 1945, succeeding Horace Turman who had retired due to illness. Caston leads a solid, no-nonsense performance, but it is Rabin who sounds lively and emotionally involved. If anything, playing “live” brought out, you might say, more of his “Paganini side” than the somewhat staid EMI studio concerti.

Our survey ends here with the live performance of the Paul Creston Violin Concerto, conducted by no less a figure than Georg Solti with the LA Philharmonic. This is the roughest-sounding of all the recordings in this set, not only thin and shrill but with considerable tape noise. I think it might have been recorded on a portable machine by someone in the audience. Creston was a composer whose music used constantly shifting chord positions beneath a lyric top line that tended towards bitonality. His Frontiers was one of the few modern American orchestral works performed by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, but this 1960 work is even more harmonically advanced, and Rabin absolutely revels in it. The engineers at Profil could have done considerably more to clean up this recording than they did; I was able to restore more body of sound and reduce the surface noise significantly with my little $50 audio editor (GoldWave), but thank goodness it exists. It is clearly one of the high water marks of Rabin’s entire discography. The last movement is especially interesting, with Creston using opposing rhythms in the violin and orchestral parts, Strange as it may seem, Solti’s muscular conducting style is perfect for this work.

Warner Classics’ Icon: Young Genius of the Violin set runs six CDs and includes a few key recordings not available in this one, such as the two Ysaÿe solo Violin Sonatas, the Wieniawski Étude-Caprice, and of course the complete Paganini Caprices, but as mentioned in the headnote you can listen to his complete set of the Paganini Caprices for free on YouTube, and the Warner/EMI set lacks the Creston Concerto which is a live performance and not a studio recording.

For me, then, this set, to which I would add the Paganini Caprices, is almost an ideal representation of Rabin. I would, however, replace the rubbishy Scottish Fantasy with his recordings of the two Ysaye Sonatas, Scriabin’s Étude Op. 8 No. 10, the Sarasate Zapateado and Habanera and the Paganini Moto Perpetuo (the latter with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra). Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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