BRUCH Scottish Fantasy. MASSENET Thaïs: Meditation • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Michael Ludwig (vn); Virginia SO • HAMPTON ROAD 5 (35:35) Live: 1/2007
Ready the rack, for I confess to apostasy. There are those for whom Heifetz reigns supreme and can do no wrong. For them, latter day violinists that have recorded repertoire in which Heifetz is believed to have excelled are automatically compared to, and almost invariably dismissed as, inferior. In general, I eschew fanatical faith in any single artist; and in particular I have never been a great Heifetz fan for reasons too involved to go into in this abbreviated review. Suffice it to say that Heifetz is considered to own Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. Fanfare’s Arthur Lintgen in 29:6 definitively declared the SACD reissue of the Heifetz recording with Malcolm Sargent to be “the finest recording of Bruch’s masterpieces ever made in terms of both performance and sound.” With sincere apologies and due respect to Arthur, it’s this kind of absolutism—almost religious in its fervor—that really bothers me. I am familiar with a number of more recent recordings of the Scottish Fantasy that I would readily choose over Heifetz’s: James Ehnes’s and Perlman’s for two.
And now there is a third, Michael Ludwig, whom I had not previously heard before receiving this disc. Ludwig was hailed by The Strad magazine for his “effortless, envy-provoking technique . . . sweet tone, brilliant expression, and grand style.” All of the above, and more, are borne out by this performance of the Bruch. First, such tonal radiance and luminosity as Ludwig possesses are rare; the purity of his stratospheric notes high on the E-string has to be heard to be believed. Some of the credit, of course, surely goes to one of the most gorgeous instruments I’ve ever heard, a violin by the 18th-century Cremonese maker, Lorenzo Storioni, and a bow by Dominque Peccatte. But there is more to Ludwig’s playing than his Strad-cited virtues. Ultimately, it’s his interpretive insight that must be measured, and it is here that in my book he wins the day. His phrasing is so sensitive—knowing just where to place the slightest emphasis, where to lighten bow pressure ever so slightly to achieve delicate chiaroscuro effects, where to intensify and where to relax his vibrato—it could serve as an object lesson to every budding violinist.
Another apostasy I must confess is my irrational hatred of Massenet’s famous “Meditation” from his opera Thaïs. I hate it because it’s such a beautiful piece, and because I struggled so to learn it as a young student without ever succeeding in making it sound the way it should. It’s a lot harder than it looks or sounds when played as gorgeously as it is here. This CD will almost certainly be one of my 2008 Want List choices. My only regret is its fairly short timing.