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Michael Rabin And His Magic Bow

Michael Rabin (1936–1972) was one of America’s greatest violinists—so great that his renowned teacher, Ivan Galamian, said he had “no weaknesses, never.” Even today Rabin leaves the listener agog at his tone, inventiveness, and technical prowess. The following overview sifts through Rabin’s much-reissued recorded oeuvre in order to recommend the finest performances and best-sounding releases, some overlooked even by enthusiastic fans. Rabin aficionados have had their work cut out for them if they wanted to go beyond the recordings issued in his lifetime and separate the wheat from the chaff. If you love his playing and want to dive in deeper, this article could save you a lot of time.

Michael’s first LPs for EMI were released on Angel in the US and Columbia in the UK. EMI acquired Capitol in 1957, and subsequent releases appeared under that imprint. EMI remastered all those studio albums for their six-CD 1936–1972 set from 1991. People have complained for years that it’s decent but airless. (Viewing the frequency spectrum reveals that everything above about 20.5kHz is cut off.) EMI’s 2011 reissue, Young Genius on the Violin, uses the same remasters. Testament did its own remastering for their 2011 Studio Recordings CD set, and in general it’s slightly warmer and less “digital.” But for the best sound at affordable prices, Testament’s 180-gram LPs cannot be topped; they have presence, authority, and wider bandwidth that no other modern versions have.

The Magic Bow is the crown jewel of Rabin’s studio work, an audiophile holy grail of light classical fare made with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under Felix Slatkin. Testament’s splendid LP is the most faithful to the original Capitol. EMI’s Strings by Starlight CD from 1990 sounds more natural than 1936–1972, but it’s out of print, expensive, and still missing the uppermost frequencies. Two reissues of the EMI reproduce its sonics: one by Arkiv Music, the other a 1994 Royal Classics release. 

Testament’s Magic Bow in The Studio Recordings loses a little shimmer on Michael’s tone, and the low end is slightly shallower. Also, playback speed was apparently slowed so the orchestra would match A=440. I have five Capitol LPs that show the Hollywood Bowl actually tuned a few cents sharper. It’s no deal-breaker, but it does result in slightly slower tempos on the CD.

In 2016 Blue Moon Records produced an “SACD” of The Magic Bow and Mosaics. Avoid it. The packaging lacks any legalese about licensing, and the frequency spectrum is clearly cut off just above 22kHz, consistent with CD-quality mastering, not hi-res.

Rabin recorded two other albums of short works for Capitol: Mosaics, and a sequel that inexplicably got shelved. Testament released the sequel in its 2012 Unpublished Recordings CD set, and as Mosaics 2 on LP in 2017. Rabin’s technique is jaw-dropping, of course, but he put loads of emotion and care into these wonderful miniatures. EMI’s 1999 remastering of Mosaics is a touch clearer than 1936–1972, and I believe EMI added a hint of reverb to sweeten the sound (I have the authorized Arkiv reprint). It also included solo sonatas by Bach and Ysaÿe that were recorded in mono and only issued in the US for Angel. Testament has not put these astonishing beauties out on LP.

Close-miking makes the complete Paganini Caprices tiring eventually, and there’s barely a difference between mono and stereo. 1936–1972 added reverb to the mono masters. The 1993 stereo version from EMI is as dry as cracker juice; 2001’s offered mono, reverb, and a rumbling background. Simon Gibson at Abbey Road redid the stereo for EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series in 2003. Testament chose stereo, too; its CD has a touch of reverb, as does Gibson’s. It’s a tough call between them, but Gibson’s lies easiest on my ears.

Michael had already recorded 11 Caprices for his Columbia debut at age 14, and they sound fresher and even more playful. Sony’s 1999 CD, The Early Years, includes those along with Michael Rabin Plays, a 10-inch of short pieces with Artur Balsam on piano, and another 10-inch of Paganini, Sarasate, and Nováček with the Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra. The remastering is excellent.

The concerto recordings for EMI were mostly pre-stereo. The Mendelssohn is earthbound and the Tchaikovsky is rushed. A far superior Tchaikovsky from 1961 can be found in stereo in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Centennial Collection. The other EMI concertos are stunning. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is a heartbreaker, and Glazounov’s Concerto is noble and heartfelt. The First Concertos of Paganini and Wieniawski show how much depth Michael could bring to so-called show-off pieces.

A remade Paganini 1 in terrific stereo with Wieniawski 2 as its disc mate appeared in 1960. EMI’s 1990 remaster came out only in Europe and now sells for over $300; it is less compressed than 1936–1972 and has all the upper frequencies. A surprise contender is an outstanding 2006 Medici Arts remaster that also offers four tracks from The Magic Bow. Testament’s CD has less oomph than the rest, but its LP is every bit the equal of a Capitol original.

Rabin’s contract with EMI lapsed in the 1960s, and from then on his output is limited to broadcasts or test recordings with archival sound, to put it politely. Hiss, hum, and dropout are frequent, and some home tapings were made with a microphone in front of a speaker. Since Michael’s luminous tone was one of his greatest glories, it’s cruelty to have to hack through lousy sound to hear it. It’s unfortunate that, for an artist of his stature, so much of the later output would be so limited, obscure, and subpar sonically. But is there some fine music on some of these out-of-the-way recordings that, in many cases, weren’t originally intended for release? Absolutely.

Doremi has issued three volumes in its Michael Rabin Collection. Volume 1 has rare broadcasts from the early 60s in Berlin. Beethoven’s Sonata No 8 is perky but often slapdash. Fauré’s First is hardly his best work, and Rabin’s performance is prosaic. His vibrato is unusually wobbly, likely because of tape flutter.

In Volume 2 (three CDs), a 1967 Ravinia Festival performance of the Brahms Concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Rafael Kubelik is full of yearning, beautifully paced, and has decent stereo sound. Michael’s intonation was running on 87 octane rather than his usual premium, but his interpretation shows both ardor and musical maturity. Orchestra and conductor are with him all the way. Some of Rabin’s attacks are too slashing, and the dry acoustic lets some of the magic escape. Archipel included a 1957 Prokofieff with the Köln Radio Symphony on André Cluytens Rarities. Sonics are gritty, but it has more personality, polish, and purpose.

One of Rabin’s few forays into 20th-Century music was the concerto of German-American composer Richard Mohaupt; it’s ruddy-cheeked but angular, a bit like rustic Hindemith. Rabin makes the themes sing like a Heifetz tune, and if they weren’t so academic, the piece could have become fairly popular. Paul Creston’s Second Concerto (with Thomas Scherman and the Little Orchestra Society) has strong strains of both impressionism and neo-classicism; the rhythms are vigorous but more sophisticated than Mohaupt’s. Creston’s slow movement is steamy, and the finale is a flirtatious, carefree tarantella that reflects his Italian heritage. Rabin plays it to the hilt, but it was apparently recorded underwater.

There’s a handful of other Bell Telephone Hour appearances from 1951 and 1955; one, the first movement of Bach’s Double Concerto, is the only aural document we have of Rabin performing with Zino Francescatti. The orchestra is shaggy, but clearly the stars are having fun. Short pieces by Milhaud, Szymanowski, and Spalding come from Berlin broadcasts, as well as six solid Paganini Caprices. A 1950 Wieniawski Concerto No 1 is iffy.

Volume 3 includes the 1960 premiere of Creston’s Second Concerto with Georg Solti and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the hum, static, harshness, and missing bottom end render it unbearable. Mozart’s Fourth is exuberant, but the Denver Symphony in 1960 was unrefined and the sonics clotted. In a 1968 Glazounov Concerto, Rabin’s serenity and wisdom almost edge out his early EMI version. 

A handful of Bell Telephone Hour appearances bring sentimental delights, but the miracle find is a Sydney Town Hall concert from Rabin’s 1952 Australian tour. He played showpieces, three Paganini Caprices, Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and an arresting reading of Ravel’s Tzigane. It is quite distorted, sad to say. Tahra’s 2-disc Michael Rabin Legacy has a few concertos in poor audio, but the big draw is about 20 appearances from the Bell Telephone Hour unavailable elsewhere. The sound is dated but fair.

Michael’s sister Bertine contributed family recordings to Testament’s Unpublished Recordings. His public debut recital at age ten includes most of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, four Paganini Caprices, and a few other beefy selections. His technique and tone are mind-boggling. Some 78s from 1949 include three movements of Bach’s Partita in D Minor. Besides the aforementioned Mosaics 2, there is John Alden Carpenter’s underrated, sensual sonata, recorded for Golden Crest in 1964 but never released (mono, some deterioration). Brahms’s Concerto and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy come from 1970 and 1971 stereo broadcasts. The Brahms at Ravinia is better, but this Scottish Fantasy is a keeper.

In 2009 Audite gave us Bruch’s First Concerto with Thomas Schippers and the Berlin Radio Symphony, which is sonically superior to one on Doremi 2 from the same week in June, 1969. The pacing, the fire, the grandeur, the swells, and the details from all the instruments are breathtaking. Rabin’s phrasing always reflected youthful yearning, but now it was informed by the disappointments life had brought him.

Profil’s budget-friendly Genius on the Violin has almost all the mono concertos in masterings that hold their own. Three selections from The Magic Bow and Mosaics, Bach’s Third Sonata, Mozart’s Fourth Concerto, and the only listenable version of the Creston premiere with Solti round out the four-disc set.

Tags: MICHAEL RABIN VIOLIN

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