THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

03 October 2017

Zino Francescatti and Paganini

Last year I wrote a blog about the discovery of a live recording of pianist Mark Hambourg and how it had restored his reputation as an artist.  The recording was made in 1955 by Frank Hardingham whose collection of tapes I acquired for the British Library from his son.  Since then, Mr Hardingham’s daughter Gill has sent some biographical information about her father which gives an insight into why these unique early tape recordings are of such good quality.

Just before his fourteenth birthday, Frank Hardingham (1903-1973) left school and went to work in a shipping office in London for several years, travelling up by train from his home town of Romford, Essex.  He used the journey to read magazines like 'Practical Wireless' and after further study obtained the Diploma in the Theory and Practice of Radio and Television Engineering in 1938, which made him a member of the Incorporated Institute of Radio Engineers.  Also at this time he built his own crystal radio set.

Then he and his friend Eric joined the business of Mr Silcocks, Eric’s father.  They set up a small workshop and sold home-built radios through the shop. They later expanded the business from selling and servicing radios to dealing in television and other electrical goods, furniture, and records, where Frank’s knowledge of classical music was much appreciated by customers.

A man of many talents and interests, Frank learnt German, and travelled widely in Europe before and after the war.  Before he married in 1932, he went mountain walking in Europe with his younger brother.  He was a radio ham, and made contacts worldwide. 

Frank was also a keen photographer, and developed and enlarged his own photos, using his artistic talent to hand colour some of them.

Frank had a lifelong love of classical music, and recorded from the radio.  Often he would go to a concert, leaving the recording all set up for his wife to press the record button.  Frank had a happy retirement, pursuing many of his interests.  He continued to travel; indeed, in 1971 he visited many countries in South America, and reached Everest base camp in 1972.  He enjoyed family life with his children and grandchildren, working with his wife in their large garden, and savouring a glass of excellent wine.

Another gem from the Hardingham collection is the Proms debut of the great French violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991) who was born in Marseilles.  His father, Fortunato Francescatti (1858-1923) was a pupil of Camillo Sivori who had been the only student of the great Nicolò Paganini.  At the age of ten he played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Marseilles and made his first records in the same city at the age of nineteen for French HMV.

Francescatti gave his professional debut in Paris at the Palais Garnier in 1925 playing the technically demanding Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini.  The same year he played in London with Harold Craxton accompanying, and the following year toured with Ravel, who accompanied him in his own Berceuse at Cheltenham Town Hall.  Known as a good but not great pianist, Ravel had George Reeves accompany Francescatti in his rather more demanding Tzigane.  From 1927 Francescatti taught at the Ecole Normale in Paris.

Francescatti made his US debut in 1939 playing the Paganini Concerto with the New York Philharmonic and John Barbirolli.  The Second World War interrupted his progress, but the late 1940s and 1950s were the peak of his career.  During this time he made a series of famous LP discs for Columbia with the greatest conductors of the time including Dmitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein.  In 1947 American critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote of him: ‘Everywhere there was beauty, dignity, repose and the authority of solid worth. If violin playing is in the way of becoming a noble art again . . . this artist is one of those responsible for the change.’  Ten years later Francescatti himself said: 'My philosophie is never to fight a piece. I only want to give the impression that music is poetic, beautiful and easy.'

In August 1951 Francescatti performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Edinburgh Festival with Dmitri Mitropoulos and then made his first appearance at the Proms in September with his calling card, Paganini’s Violin Concerto conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  The sense of occasion and the excitement of the audience can be felt during the first movement after which they burst into spontaneous applause.  This live performance took place in the Albert Hall sixty-six years ago and, thanks to Mr Hardingham's expertly made recording, we can relive the wonderful experience.  Here is the demanding cadenza and close of the first movement.

Francescatti Paganini

The complete recording will be released by Testament Records.

For all the latest Classical news on Twitter follow @BL_Classical