Carl-Gunnar Åhlén

Svensk ljudarkeolog

REVIEW – Charles Barkel (violin) – Violingeni & Maskrosbarn Recordings made between 1928 and 1953 with recordings

The translation of the subtitle of this 4-CD box set is ‘violin genius and dandelion child’ and its subject is Charles Andersson, known professionally as Charles Barkel (1898-1973). The Swedish violinist was a student of Carl Flesch and an important soloist and quartet leader. His commercial discography, however, is meagre and largely dominated by his recording of Aulin’s Concerto No.3, the work with which I always associate him, and which fortunately has been reissued on CD. Now Caprice gives us the opportunity to enjoy a wide array of material – commercial, private recordings and broadcasts, rehearsal snippets, quartet performances and a brief appendix of pieces by his most prominent teachers. All this is accompanied by a simply splendid 155-page booklet which includes many photographs, reminiscences, interviews and a chronology of his concert appearances between 1914 and 1954. The text is in Swedish only, which may be frustrating, but some of the information – such as the chronology – crosses linguistic borders.

What follows is a whistle-stop tour of some of the highlights of this engrossing set. The first disc restores some of his earliest 78rpm sides made in Stockholm in 1928-29 including sensitively shaped Juon and atmospheric Kreisler. He lends his obbligato to a swoopy soprano in the Gounod-Bach Ave Maria and takes the lead in a 1936 film soundtrack of Provost’s Intermezzo from Souvenir de Vienne. From the same year comes a preserved radio broadcast in which he essays two brief pieces with organist Otto Olsson – a nice piece of balancing ensures that he is not swamped by the large instrument and Handel and Tartini-Kreisler emerge well. It was de rigueur for a Swedish player to promote Aulin’s Aquarelles and Barkel, with a frequent piano partner, Natanael Broman, does precisely that in May 1938. Interestingly two of the pieces were issued on Radiotjänst and the other two on Telefunken – a curious state of affairs. They’re played with idiomatic sensitivity. A radio broadcast from November 1939 preserves a delightfully played Sinding Romance and the first disc closes with a curio; a kind of Grieg sonata triptych; one movement from a different performance with three different pianists spanning the years 1943-53. Only one movement exists from the 1943 performance but the other two are both complete, so Caprice has chosen a novel way to present the sonata. The composite has some sound problems, in that the earliest example breaks up briefly and the 1951 central movement sounds watery.

Franck’s Sonata with Tore Wiberg (January 1951) opens the second disc. Occasional pitch destabilization occurs and the sound is rather poor and Barkel’s tremulous vibrato – particularly in the third movement – and expressively exaggerated playing is unconvincing. It’s especially intriguing to hear the duo tackle Eugene Goossens’ First Sonata, a very much less obvious piece of repertoire. Though the sound is rather constricted this is a well measured and congruent interpretation. Tempi are flexible and the lyrical quotient – especially in the beautiful slow movement – is generously presented. Barkel’s tone production isn’t especially personalised but he is noticeably cleaner in approach in this sonata than the Franck. Harald Fryklöf’s Sonata alla leggenda is heard, valuably, in Barkel’s own edition. In slightly better sound than the Goossens one can hear this warm-hearted work to advantage, a richly communicative, occasionally bardic piece with strong echoes of Svendsen and Grieg.

The third disc disinters major concerto repertoire. The Sibelius was given in 1948 with Tor Mann directing the Stockholm Philharmonic and is preserved by Swedish Radio. There’s a bit of overload in the sound, which has a slightly hollow patina. Barkel plays with a lot of portamenti but relatively well-controlled rubati. It’s not a high-octane performance or especially virtuosic, as Barkel was not that kind of player. He is overly cautious in the cruelly taxing finale but is rewarded with generous applause. John Fernström’s 1952 Concerto No.2 – with Sten Frykberg conducting in 1953 – is a rich tapestry of pirouetting vocalized violin lines, austerely beautiful Arioso and folkloric tints. It’s imaginatively played all round and the orchestral tapestry is no less interesting than the solo violin line – the chattering winds shadowing the violin, for instance. The live Andante from Aulin’s Third Concerto – with Tor Mann – is here and it’s beautifully done. A private recording introduces six minutes of a rehearsal of Barkel’s string quartet.

Significantly more substantial quartet work comes in the final disc where the quartet plays Beethoven’s Op.131 in concert in 1951. Composer Sven-Erik Bäck is the violist and despite the rather recessed sound one can still enjoy the eloquent performance. The whole of Mozart’s String Quartet K516 exists and from it we hear just the slow movement, whereas the Brahms Horn Trio is heard in full – a good performance and the horn overload is brief. Amongst Barkel’s teachers was Lars Zetterquist whose 1913 folkloric discs with accordion are here and open up a vista into the late nineteenth century – he was born in 1860. Flesch’s Electrola recording of Issay Dobrowen’s Mélodie Hébraïque is followed by Peter Möller’s 1923 sprightly acoustic disc of Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro.

This is a real labour of love. Despite the specialized market Caprice has cut no corners. The superb booklet and comprehensive documentation supports the enterprise as it should, but so often doesn’t. Barkel’s name may well be unknown to most but in Caprice he has posthumously found his home.

Jonathan Woolf