Zino Francescatti (a Frenchman, despite his very Italian name) made many recordings for Columbia Masterworks over his long career. Unfortunately, very few of these remain in print as of this writing – a situation which borders on the criminal. Columbia (now Sony BMG) has other priorities, it seems, and it is up to labels such Music & Arts to preserve what it can. This box of four CDs (priced as three) contains live performances of many works which Francescatti recorded in the studio. In the absence of any sort of coherent reissue program from Sony BMG, we need these live performances more than ever to remind us what an aristocratic violinist Francescatti was. This hardly is a "faute de mieux" release, however. There's not a performance here that doesn't stand up to scrutiny and to repeated listening, even if the performers (and the recording engineers of the time) probably never would have guessed that these recordings would be publicly available as many as 60 years later.
Francescatti was born in 1902 in Marseilles to musical parents. (His Italian-born father was concertmaster for that city's orchestra.) His parents really were the only teachers he ever had, although young Zino was greatly impressed by Kreisler and Thibaud. Although he revealed his prodigious talent at an early age, Francescatti was not turned into a child prodigy by his parents, and he was given plenty of time to develop into a complete and well-rounded musician, which is something altogether better than a mere "virtuoso." His playing was characterized by the fullness and purity of his tone production, which meant that he particularly excelled in the Classical and early Romantic repertoires. Though Francescatti's playing typically was sweet, he didn't allow it to turn saccharine. He played modern music too, and if it wasn't always idiomatic, it was always beautiful. For example, hearing the Prokofieff sonata in the present compilation, one is struck by how Francescatti turns the music's spikes into arrows of love! If Francescatti had any limitations, it was that his playing was, if possible, too uniformly beautiful. He seldom altered the perfection of his timbre for expressive purposes, and even devices such as sliding from one note to another – quite acceptable, if done in moderation – were rare in his playing. Jascha Heifetz and Francescatti were born just one year apart, but they might just have well have come from different planets, given the Russian violinist's use of expressive devices almost completely absent in Francescatti's playing. (Having said that, I rejoice that Francescatti roughs things up to good effect in the 1958 Tzigane preserved here. And please don't think that I am knocking Heifetz! Just because I like coffee doesn't mean that I don't also like tea.)
Francescatti recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy (in monaural sound) and with Bruno Walter (in stereo); here, he plays it with André Cluytens, who also was much admired for his performances and recordings of Beethoven's music. Cluytens's interpretation is stormier than either Ormandy's or Walter's (at least as it was in the late 1950s), but Francescatti persists in bringing out the most serene aspects of this concerto. On paper, the collaboration does not seem promising, but it works very well in actuality: Francescatti takes the part of Orpheus, while Cluytens and his orchestra impersonate the Furies. As in mythology, it is Orpheus who gets the upper hand. (The same holds true for the Mozart.)
There are no disappointments here. The Brahms sonata, recorded in Besançon, is profoundly moving, and the Beethoven sonata makes Sony BMG's deletion of the Francescatti/Casadesus studio recordings seem even crueler. The two Beethoven Romances and the Saint-Saëns typically are played with orchestras. Here, Eugenio Bagnoli fills in the sonorities as best he can.
The 24-page booklet contains two long essays: one biographical, and the other on "The Recorded Legacy" of the violinist. The second was written by Henry Roth in 1987 while Francescatti still was alive, although he had retired in 1975. (It is unclear whether the first essay is by Roth or by another author.) What's missing is background information about any of these performances, apart from dates and the names of collaborating artists. It's not a major omission, but including this information would have helped to place these performances in some sort of context. The booklet does warn us in advance about various sonic faults: noise, imperfect balance between the violin and the piano, pitch instability, and so on. Having been prepared for the worst, one sighs in relief to find that nothing on this set is in such poor sound that musical enjoyment is compromised in any way. Obviously the recordings are not studio-quality, but they're not at all bad. (The Mendelssohn concerto, which is the last work in this set, is even in stereo.) Maggi Payne's "sound restoration" does the trick again!
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle