Highlights by Huberman

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9. BACH: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (arr. Huberman). Orchestral Suite No. 3: Air on the G String (arr. Wilhelmj). SCHUBERT: Ave Maria (arr. Auer). BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 1 (arr. Joachim). TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir d’un lieu cher: Melodie in Eb. BRUCH: Kol Nidrei. ELGAR: La Capricieuse. SARASATE: Spanish Dances: Romanza andalusa. ZARZYCKI: Mazurka in G. BIZET: Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” (arr. Sarasate) / Bronislaw Huberman, vln; Siegfried Schultze, pno / Biddulph LAB 1025

Although Bronislaw Huberman had an active career between 1893, when he was only 11 years old, and 1947, the year in which he died, he is virtually forgotten today except by connoisseurs of past violin masters. There are two reasons for this: first, and perhaps most prominently, his playing was full of portamento and a fairly broad portamento at that, which had been a feature of violin playing since the late 17th century but which was erased from performance practice in general by the early 1930s thanks to such performers as Heifetz, Szigeti and Menuhin, all of whom are much better known today than he, and second, because he played with what has been described as a “sweet-and-sour tone,” using vibrato only judiciously, mostly in loud sustained notes. Of course, nowadays there are literally hundreds of violinists who play with straight tone and only straight tone, thus except for the portamento Huberman should be—but isn’t—an idol of the Historically-Informed crowd. A third, peripheral reason was that he played Bach in a legato style with rounded phrasing, just as he played Beethoven and Brahms, and of course that is verboten nowadays.

Huberman001This disc is a sampling of his Brunswick recordings (1921-25, all recorded acoustically) and his early (1928-1935) Columbias, all of which were recorded electrically, yet ironically it is the Brunswick recordings that somewhat soften the edginess of his bright, often vibratoless timbre and sound the most congenial to modern ears. (He also made one recording for Polydor in 1929, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with young Hans Wilhelm (William) Steinberg conducting.) FYI, the Beethoven “Kreutzer” was the only sonata he recorded complete and he recorded it twice, the performance presented here from 1925 with his regular pianist of the time, Siegfried Schultze, and again in 1929 for Columbia with the much better-known Ignacy Friedman. Since I own virtually all of Huberman’s recordings except for the 1899 G&Ts (just too noisy and poorly recorded to enjoy listening to), I have both performances. This Brunswick version is somewhat more straightforward in tempo and phrasing than the Columbia, in which both Huberman and Friedman indulge in some interesting moments of rubato, but both are treasurable in their own way. The full set of his Brunswick recordings was issued by Biddulph in 1993, all transfers made by Ward Marston, and Kol Nidreithese are the transfers used here. I should point out that the take of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei on this set is not the Brunswick acoustic with pianist Paul Frenkel, who preceded Schultze as his accompanist, but the electrical version on Columbia. Both performances are beautiful, but this one is exceptionally noisy, with far too much surface noise left in, but apparently Biddulph wanted this to be an all-Schultze-accompanied recital, and so it is.

The interesting thing to note is that, despite his long and storied career (he actually played the Brahms Violin Concerto in front of the composer in 1896), Huberman absolutely hated recording and so would do anything to make as few records as possible. The fact that he left us as many as he did is undoubtedly due to the pressure from his manager, who knew that in the age of the phonograph one had to have a body of recordings in stockpile in order to sell the violinist’s live performances to concert audiences. Nonetheless, Huberman made no commercial recordings after 1937; all of the later examples we have of his art stem from broadcast acetates, some of which he didn’t even know were being made.

How obscure is Huberman? Even I had never heard of him until the late 1980s when I acquired a book called Great Violinists in Performance that included him. I read the chapter on him in amazement, with all its praise and occasional criticism, because I hadn’t even known that he existed. I also learned that he was the particular bane of pedagogue Carl Flesch’s existence; Flesch absolutely hated Huberman’s playing, calling it an abomination. He also had no fan in conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who once said, “Huberman? A great artist, a very great artist…if only he knew how to play the violin!”

Yet listening to his recordings, we understand why he was so highly prized in his day and still admired now. He played, as several critics have put it, with a “gypsy soul,” and this gave his playing great emotional power and verve missing in the playing of such tonal masters of the instrument as Toscha Seidel, who is also pretty much forgotten today.

For the edification of Huberman fans, I hereby include excerpts from a very rare interview that he once gave (I don’t know who the interviewer was, or for which publication).

Mr. Huberman, to which school would you say you belong?

I wish I knew myself. As a boy of ten I spent eight months with Joachim; but as he was absent from Berlin much of the time…I might truthfully say that I am as much a pupil, or more, of Jean de Reszké or Caruso as I am of Joachim. Take Caruso, for instance. He pointed one great lesson which every violinist might follow. In spite of being none too economical inn using his voice, in producing his tone, he had developed a great reserve of strength, a natural reserve of power and expression, and showed wonderful ability in building up an aria to its natural climax. This ability I have made it my business to develop with regard to my own instrument.

What do yo consider the basis of musical expression?

Rhythm—there you have it. Rhythm is the soul of music, and the characteristic rhythms of each country are built on the physical movements of its dancers…You should hear a German orchestra trying to play a Strauss waltz. The beats are square and unvaried; the whole thing completely dead. It is not a waltz at all. But the humblest Viennese, who has grown up with the real waltz rhythm surround him on every side, reprocess it by instinct. So, wherever I go, I dip into the folklore of that place. That is why I can claim to understand the English composers – and few Continentals can say as much. Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams – all of them have the English folk idiom in their blood. Unless one has studied that idion at its source, how is one to interpret their music with insight?

But now does folk music relate to classical music?

The study of folk rhythms carries itself over into the region of classical music. An instance will show you what I mean. In New York some years ago, a young violinist told me that he thought I played the last movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto too fast. I had a bet with him. “Come with me to a Russian restaurant which has an orchestra,” I said. “If within two hours we do not hear the principal phrase of that last movement, or something very like it, I will pay you ten dollars.” He agreed. And it was I who received the ten dollars. For I was able to point out that the native players enunciated the theme at exactly the same speed as I had done, though it occurred in music of a completely different sort. The point is that Tchaikovsky had not borrowed the motive directly from folk music. It occurred in his concerto simply because he had steeped himself in the characteristic Russian melodies. Because I, too, had acquired that melodic scheme as a background, I was abler to give his musical thought exactly the shape and expression it required.

How much practice a day is necessary?

Well, for a violinist studying with a master, or a professional violinist, at least four hours a day, and not more than six are necessary. I should not want an artist pupil studying with me to practice more than five hours a day. As to the virtuoso, he should never look at a watch…On tour I practice regularly on the train in my stateroom. I know that some violinists do not believe in daily work while on tour. But listen to their playing, especially toward the end of their season!

What exercises can you recommend for students?

I hesitate to prescribe exercises, because what one practices is less important than how one practices it. However, I can recommend playing scales in double stops in thirds…Nor do I hold greatly by etudes. They are good to lay a foundation, to supply the elementary ground for the higher virtuoso technique. But from the standpoint of virtuoso playing the spiccato, the vibrato, etc., can never be acquired by the study of etudes. It is possible on the piano, perhaps, in such etudes as those by Chopin and others, to develop finish, but not on the violin.

What is the most difficult bowing?

To judge from the number of times I have seen it missing in other violinists I should say the spiccato. Ninety-five out of a hundred violinists – and I do not exclude the greatest – instead of a rounded, springing spiccato, use a species of nebulous détaché.

And turning to the left hand, what are your thoughts on vibrato?

The vibrato, to begin with, is one of the greatest of violinistic effects; but most violinists use it as a Rembrandt does his dark yellow backgrounds. I look on it as an accessory of expression, which has to be carefully graduated in its use, like the crescendo, forte or accelerando…It is best to think of the vibrato as a graduating means of expression. Then its occasional use for contrast is very effective, and much to be preferred to the terrible continuous vibrato which irritates the nerves.

(To all you HIP players out there, please reread the above paragraph. That is how 18th-century violinists really played.)

Finally, Mr. Huberman, what does all this hard work and practice let you achieve?

Truth, rather than mere beauty, and its perfected expression in playing is my idea of violin mastery. And the truth cannot be expressed without a perfected technical base.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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