By Sasha Margolis
For many violinists these days, the name Zino Francescatti is more likely to evoke thoughts of printed music than actual violin-playing. Look at page one of an International Music violin part, and you’re likely to see the words “Edited by Zino Francescatti.” Meanwhile, too many of this incredible French fiddler’s recordings still haven’t made the leap from analog to digital. Nonetheless, Francescatti—one of the true nice guys of the music world—was also one of the twentieth century’s great soloists, with interpretations that were unfailingly gorgeous, often original, and never less than thrillingly virtuosic.
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Francescatti was born in 1902 in Marseilles. He studied with both his parents, developing his technique on an early diet of Ševčík, Kreutzer, and Gaviniès. His taskmaster father, Fortunato Francescatti, had studied with Paganini’s only known pupil, Camillo Sivori, and it’s possible that young Zino inherited some Paganinian trade secrets. At twenty, Francescatti moved to Paris, where the older French violinist Jacques Thibaud helped further his career. He became good friends with Ravel, and they toured together, playing the composer’s Tzigane and Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré. In 1938, he crossed the Atlantic to make a Buenos Aires debut playing the Paganini Concerto No. 1. Soon after, he debuted in the U.S. with the same piece. Over the ensuing decades, Francescatti enjoyed one of the violin world’s top solo careers, recording with conductors such as Szell, Ormandy, and Bernstein, and forming a longtime sonata partnership with pianist Robert Casadesus, while making his home in Massachusetts. He was beloved by fellow violinists, and was particularly known for secretly slipping money into the cases of his more impecunious students. Francescatti retired at age seventy-three, returning to southern France at about the same time, and died in 1991.
Whether derived from Paganini or not, Francescatti’s virtuoso technique was spectacular, up to the demands of his own frequently fast tempi and unswerving rhythmic discipline. He played with a constant vibrato, fast but rather wide, and believed in using a good deal of left-hand finger pressure. When playing with orchestra, he changed bow liberally, but though his bow changes often created distinct consonants, he habitually spun long phrases. Musically, he was unusual in the degree to which he avoided creating inertia on the opening notes of phrases and gestures, and his playing tends to convey a sort of aerial quality, liberated from any gravity that might arise from technical struggle or rhythmic heaviness. His interpretations may not have abounded in moments of intimate personal expression, but they did boast ample offerings of logic, clarity, charm, and drama.
Francescatti excelled at, and recorded, most of the major concerti. Among his finest renditions was the Paganini, which he recorded with Ormandy and Philadelphia. A Paganini recital at the Library of Congress is also preserved on record, which includes renditions with piano of the same concerto, a number of caprices, I Palpiti, and the Carnival of Venice. Francescatti’s Paganini is always extraordinary: poised, operatic, and seemingly effortless. Another great concerto recording is the Saint-Saëns No. 3 with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. Francescatti’s taut but lyrical performance serves as a reminder of what a great concerto this can be in the right hands. Of historical interest is a sweet-toned, sober-minded and well-disciplined recording of the Bernstein Serenade, with Bernstein conducting New York.
Not surprisingly, Francescatti was a master of French repertoire. Tzigane displays his talent for gesture, Saint-Saëns’ Rondo capriccioso is deliciously sensuous, and in the Chausson Poème, the violinist soars and darts like a bird, sometimes at surprisingly fast tempi. Francescatti recorded many sonatas with Casadesus. Among the finest is a beautifully detailed Beethoven C minor. The Frenchman was a great admirer of Fritz Kreisler, who admired him back. A recording of Kreisler’s Allegretto in the Style of Boccherini shows a good deal of Viennese charm. Incredible instincts for pacing and gesture can be heard in Schumann’s Prophet Bird. And in Ravel’s Berceuse, Francescatti achieves an extraordinary kind of barely suppressed gorgeousness that must have endeared him to his composer friend.
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