Bronislaw Huberman was one of the most versatile, emotive and exciting violinists who ever lived. Despite the fact that he was a Polish Jew, he was often described as having the "soul of a gypsy," meaning that he played with the same emotion and fire as a Rrom fiddler, though he had the technique for and knowledge of classical music. The results were performances unlike any others, combining a sharp spiccato attack with portamento slides and a variance of tone color from dry, edgy sounds to the most sumptuous vibrato. Such a technique was indeed closely related, not only to Gypsy violinists, but also to Klezmer musicians who Huberman would have had first-hand knowledge of. (Similar techniques were also introduced to jazz by Italian-American violinist Joe Venuti.)
Huberman's recordings fall neatly into four sections: the 1903-04 G&T recordings, the 1925-26 Brunswick acoustics, the 1929-1935 Columbia electrics, and the 1940-46 broadcast transcriptions. In each of these, however, his tone recorded differently. The 1903 G&Ts are obviously the worst, his sound coming across as thin, rough and scrapy. The mid-1920s Brunswicks, though also acoustics, are just the opposite, his tone sounding sweet and inviting. In the British Columbias, the sound varies. Some, like the Tchaikovsky concerto, the Bach concerti and Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole," are extraordinarily beautiful, while others, like the Beethoven concerto, the "Kreutzer" sonata with Ignacy Friedman, the Bruch Kol Nidre and the Mozart concerto No. 3, sound rather acidic in places with rough bowing. That this was the fault of the recording equipment and not of Huberman, however, is attested to by the last group of recordings, which have assumed greater and greater importance in the digital age. Thanks to more sophisticated techniques of reprocessing old recordings, we can hear Huberman's tone "up close and personal," and it is much like the Brunswicks or the better Columbias.
These performances of the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concerti have achieved legendary status over the decades, largely because of the violinist's non-traditional approach. Both are very well-conducted by names that would become famous in America, William Steinberg (here named "Hans Wilhelm") and George Szell, who in the wake of Toscanini's demise suddenly found himself compared to the Italian maestro (quite favorably, by the way) until his death in 1970. Both conductors are very much in tune with both Huberman and the music; Steinberg, in fact, later recorded a magnificent stereo version of the Beethoven concerto with the usually-cold Nathan Milstein.
Of the two recordings, I find the Tchaikovsky the more riveting. From Huberman's first entrance, he is totally in command, riding and driving the score like an experienced cowboy taming a bucking bronco. Absolutely nothing is held back, emotionally or tonally. Huberman's pizzicato and spiccato attacks are utterly fearless, his use of vibrato sumptuous, his portamento artistic, and his tempi unbelievably fast. Nor was this a one-time excursion. Music & Arts Programs of America has recently issued an April 1946 performance of this concerto by Huberman with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Ormandy, normally a pretty moderate conductor, with the same results. In fact, the first movements of both performances have the same time down to the second! I personally prefer this later performance to the earlier as the sound is clearer and more natural, and the playing of the Philadelphia forces more modern in concept, but the 1929 reading was and is a landmark in the history of recording.
The Beethoven poses more of a problem. Szell was, even then, a proponent of the Toscanini school, which meant no unscored lingering over details. Huberman, who was a good sort, acceded to this approach, but his phrasing sounds more hectic and scrambled than in control. Moreover, this was one of his "scrapy"-sounding Columbia recordings, so that one flinches here much more often than in the Tchaikovsky. Yes, it is a bold, highly individual reading, like everything Huberman did, and for that it must be treasured, but I for one prefer the radio broadcast he did with a pick-up orchestra, recently released on the Arbiter label.
For the price, however-and as an introduction to basic Huberman 101-this CD could hardly be bettered. Collectors who have wondered whether Huberman is worth collecting or not can start here with confidence; the transfers, as usual with Naxos, are superb, much finer than any previous incarnation. No matter what you think of his tone, Huberman was a transcendent genius and a broad-based humanitarian whose overview of any work included not only its structure but its spiritual content. Like Toscanini, Olivero, Cortot and Jon Vickers, Huberman's approach to music was an emotional expression of the soul more important than mere notes. This lifted him into an exalted category where quirks of tempo, phrasing and voicing become blurred by the ecstasy of his vision.