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Pauline Lerner

The Time Machine: Great Violinists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1964)

March 22, 2006 at 8:58 AM

I’ve been watching a DVD of great violinists from the past, and it is like stepping into a time machine. It gives me new perspectives on the past, present, and future and reveals to me the sweet power of music.

The DVD is “Great Violinists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1964).” I was alive at that time. In fact, I had started taking violin lessons, and I had listened to my parents’ recordings of violin music. Why, then, don’t I have any memory of watching this TV show? The only TV music shows I remember watching featured jitterbug (swing) music, folk music, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles’ first appearance on TV in the US.

Classical music, performed by some of the stars of that era, was shown on commercial TV. Can you imagine that happening now?

Here is the playlist of the DVD.

Isaac Stern: Introduction and rondo Capriccioso (Saint-Saens)

Zino Francescatti: La fille aux cheveux de lin (Debussy) and Zigeunerweisen (Sarasate)

Michael Rabin: Violin concerto, third movement (Tchaikovsky); Caprice viennois and Tambourin chinois (Kreisler)

Mischa Elman: Violin concerto #2, second movement (Wieniaweski)and Schon Rosmarin (Kreisler)

Erica Morini: Violin Concert #1, third movement (Bruch)

Yehudi Menuhin: Violin concerto #1, second and third movements (Paganini)

David and Igor Oikstrakh: Double Concerto, second and third movements (Bach)

Ruggiero Ricci: Violin Concerto, third movement (Tchaikovsky)

Bonus selections: Gregor Piatigorsky, cellist, playing Elegie (Faure) and Allegro passionata (Saint-Saens)

These violin pieces are still played today, but what about the violinists? I remember hearing adults talk about many of them. My dentist, for example, was a fan of Mischa Elman and Nathan Milstein. He used to talk about them and whistle the Mendelssohn concerto while he worked on my teeth. Can you imagine a dentist doing that now? I remember that we had a recording of Erica Morini playing the Brahms concerto, and it was one of my mother’s favorite records. I also remember my violin teacher speaking disparagingly of Zino Francescatti. I remember him telling me that this violinist had a good sound in spite of some technical failings, which I was not supposed to emulate. I don’t remember what these technical failings were, and I can’t guess by watching the DVD now. Which of these violinists have you heard of? Which of them made recordings that you have heard? They were considered to be the very best at that time. It makes me wonder what will happen 40 years from now. Will Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, and Gil Shaham be considered great? Will their CDs still be in print?

My own reactions to this recording were interesting. There were three performers who affected me far more strongly than the others: Yehudi Menuhin and David and Igor Oistrakh. When they were playing I could not concentrate on anything else. I had to stop whatever I was doing to listen, watch, and marvel. I have read mixed opinions of Menuhin’s performance on this DVD. To me, it was passionate and compelling. I was not really troubled by his technical flaws. When I heard David and Igor Oistrakh, I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I had already heard a recording of them playing the Bach Double and felt that it was sublime, but seeing them made it even better. They had their eyes closed during most of the performance. When David Oistrakh opened his eyes, they looked as unfocussed as if he were blind. What he was seeing was within his spirit. Father and son played as if they were both following the same inner spirit. Part of this was probably due to their close relationship with each other, but I sensed something stronger and more far-reaching there, as well. I am not religious in the conventional sense, but this gave me a strong feeling that there is something bigger than us, something which resides in us, too. The soul is released from material constraints and is swept along with the current. I am thankful to Bach and the Oistrakhs for lifting me out of myself and letting me move with the current.

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