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Historical Documents: Vintage Temianka

The MHS Review 403, VOL. 12, NO.7 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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I first encountered Henri Temianka in the "red-label" catalog issued by American Decca Records about 50 years ago. Its of­ferings, apart from a few domestic recor­dings (e.g. Josephine Tumminia singing "The Blue Danube" and Sir Henry Bishop's "La capinera" accompanied by Jimmy Dorsey's Orchestra), were drawn from the European catalogs of Odeon, Parlophone, and English Decca.

The artists, save for a few like Lotte Lehman, had not been certified "great" by RCA Victor and so were a mystery to a teenage farm-boy striving desperately to become cultured. Ergo I was in no haste to acquaint myself with artists for whom no credentials were apparent. Nor was my curiosity whetted by the reviews Irving Kolodin gave Temianka's Deccas in his 1941 A Guide to Recorded Music. His remark there about the Saint-Saens Rondo remains a masterpiece of the off-putting enigmatic: "Temianka plays with virtuoso facility, but he is embarrassed by many disadvantages." One imagined that he couldn't afford a decent fiddle or had been born without arms, though what Kolodin undoubtedly had in mind was Decca's wretched surfaces.

Temianka went on to worldwide fame as founder and first violin of the Paganini Quartet (which played on instruments once owned by Paganini). But I knew little about him, and had only the vaguest idea of his origins and nationality. It was something of a surprise, then, to discover just now that he is a native of Scotland, whither his parents had migrated from Poland. He was born in 1906 and at 20 came to the United States, of which he became a citizen.

As violinist he was successively a pupil of Willy Hess in Berlin, Jules Boucherit in Paris, and Carl Flesch in Philadelphia, where he also studied conducting with Ar­tur Rodzinski. In 1935 he won first prize in the Wieniawski Competition in Warsaw, which sparked soon afterwards most of the recordings heard here. He was for a short time concertmaster of the Scottish Or­chestra and then of the Pittsburgh Sym­phony under Fritz Reiner. The quartet came into being in 1946 and was active for 20 years. Temianka settled in Los Angeles where he became founder and conductor of the admired California Chamber Sym­phony and served as a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at Long Beach State.

These recordings--most of them now more than a half century old--are, of course, historical documents. As such, one should not expect them to be up to the latest in digital wizardry. But Kolodin's reservations about their earlier American avatar no longer apply. One is constantly being dazzled these days by what contem­porary sound engineers can do with an­cient recordings. Here one can paraphrase the somnambulistic Lady Macbeth and ex­claim "Yet who would have thought the old disc to have so much music in it.'' To be sure, one is aware of surfaces, but the violin (and, to a lesser degree, the piano) emerges very realistically. Only the Aren­sky Trio occasionally hints at its age.

The notes and labels supplied me with this record leave me in some doubt about who (besides Temianka) does what where. The Arensky and the virtuoso encore pieces derived from the Parlophone ses­sions of the mid- l 930s. The trio includes the splendid Australian pianist Eileen Joyce and the cellist Antonio Sala. The reference books do not name the pianist involved in the short solo pieces; 1 am sure it was not Joyce, especially since they were done at an earlier date. I assume that Joanna Graudan (nee Freudberg), wife and musical partner of the late cellist Nikolai Graudan, is at the keyboard in the Pugnani Sonata, which I suspect was recorded (perhaps privately) in California (I find no listing of it anywhere else).

The cassette sent me for reference (not under the MHS imprint) is called The Recor­dings of Henri Temianka, which is slightly misleading. Besides his work with the Paganinis, he made other records occa­sionally. The 1948 Gramophone Shop En­cyclopedia lists the Schubert A major Ron­do and a Sibelius humoresque with ''His Chamber Orchestra," and the Schwann ar­tist listing of 1970 shows an Orion LP of Dvorak compositions and an Everest album of Handel's op. 1 Sonatas. Temianka also played the important solo violin part in the Reiner-Piatigorsky record of Strauss' Don Quixote,..and conducted Ginastera's Can­tata para America magica and Milhaud's percussion concerto for Columbia Masterworks.

Review of Vintage Temianka on page 55

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