Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Concerto No. 2
Isaac Stern (vn);
Lorin Maazel, cond;
Ernest Ansermet, cond; Swiss Festival O
AUDITE 95624 (69:37) Live: Lucerne
This release is of particular interest to me, for as one who was born, raised, and lived most of my life in San Francisco, I probably saw and heard Isaac Stern perform live in concert and recital more times than any other single artist. That, of course, was because of Stern’s close ties to the city in which he grew up and studied violin under Louis Persinger, one-time teacher of Menuhin, and with Naoum Blinder, the San Francisco Symphony’s then concertmaster. In 1936, Stern made his debut with the orchestra under the baton of Pierre Monteux, and though he would soon leave San Francisco to pursue a career as one of the world’s most recognized and sought-after violin virtuosos, he returned often to the city that had nurtured him to appear with the orchestra and in recital with his long-time accompanist, Alexander Zakin.
In 1945, Stern signed a recording contract with Columbia, an association that lasted uninterrupted for 40 years, one of the longest such artist/record company alliances in history. And during those years, Stern joined forces with famous conductors, orchestras, and chamber musicians to record the entire mainstream violin concerto and chamber music repertoire, and beyond, often more than once. If you grew up in the 1950s and began collecting records in junior high and high school, as I did, the chances are you grew up with Isaac Stern spinning on your turntables. He was Columbia’s intended rival to RCA’s Heifetz, and I readily admit that I learned much of the violin literature from Stern’s recordings before I discovered those by other celebrated artists.
These versions of the Tchaikovsky and Bartók concertos—let it be stipulated that we are dealing with Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, the more famous one, so it needn’t be repeated on each subsequent reference—are not only previously unreleased, they’re claimed to be quite rare, as Stern was seldom recorded live. A 1959 Brahms Concerto with Monteux and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood was captured live and released by West Hill Radio Archives, which, I presume is still available since it was reviewed by Richard Kaplan as recently as 35:3. But that was the Brahms, not the Tchaikovsky or the Bartók; and while Stern revisited the Tchaikovsky on a number of occasions with different conductors and orchestras, his track record with the Bartók, as far as I know, is limited to his one and only other version, a commercial studio recording he made two years after this one, in 1958, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. That, of course, makes this Audite release all the more valuable.
Of the Tchaikovsky—not counting this live performance—there are four others I’m aware of: (1) a 1949 recording with Alexander Hilsberg and the Philadelphia Orchestra; (2) a 1958 recording with the same orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, released in both mono (ML 5379) and stereo (MS 6062) and originally coupled with the Mendelssohn Concerto, but reissued a number of times in various sets and singles, including one coupled with the Sibelius Concerto; (3) a 1973 recording with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic; and (4) the violinist’s last, a 1978 recording with Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Let me deal with the Bartók first, since there’s only one other Stern version to compare it to, the aforementioned studio recording with Bernstein. Before proceeding, however, I need to voice a disclaimer. I’ve had Stern’s Bartók with Bernstein on LP for longer than I can remember, but I haven’t dusted it off and listened to it in ages because, frankly, I never liked it. The reason goes back to my opening paragraph, where I reminisce about seeing and hearing Stern live on numerous occasions in San Francisco, though never in the Bartók.
It was around that same time, however, that another San Francisco-bred violinist, who also returned regularly to the city to play with the orchestra, appeared in 1957 to perform the Bartók. I’m referring, of course, to Yehudi Menuhin, and that was my very first time hearing the Bartók. It made a deep and lasting impression on me.
In that same year, Menuhin made his classic recording of the piece with Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which was released on a Mercury Living Presence LP, and which I promptly acquired and haven’t parted with since. Menuhin had a special affinity for the piece—he’d recorded it four years earlier for EMI with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra—and I found his reading of it not only more idiomatic than Stern’s but more rapturous. Nothing in Stern’s performance transported me the way those magical moments did towards the end of the second movement in Menuhin’s recording with Doráti.
Stern, of course, didn’t suffer the deterioration in bowing that was already quite evident in Menuhin’s playing by 1957, but it may have been
of that, rather than in spite of it, that Menuhin’s performances took on a sense of vulnerability which made them all the more moving. Stern’s live Bartók under Ansermet in 1956 on the present CD is markedly different than his studio Bartók under Bernstein in 1958, and in some ways I like it better. At first glance, as you can see from the timings below, there’s an overall difference of only 16 seconds between Stern/Ansermet and Stern/Bernstein, which would suggest that despite different conductors, Stern’s view of the work hasn’t changed.
| Stern/Ansermet (1956)
|| Menuhin/Doráti (1957)
|| Stern/Bernstein (1958)
But a closer look at the timings of the individual movements tells a different story. Under Bernstein, the first movement is almost a minute slower, which is just enough to make it sound a bit slack and lacking in thrust. Compare Stern/Ansermet to Menuhin/Doráti; they’re much closer, with Menuhin being only nine seconds faster. But tempo aside, in both cases, they project the music with a greater febrile intensity. Similarly, in the second movement, though Stern/Bernstein isn’t much slower than Stern/Ansermet, it loses even more of a sense of momentum under Bernstein, and considerably so compared to Menuhin/Doráti.
I think it’s in the last movement, though, that there’s a more serious interpretive misconstruing of the score under Bernstein. Bartók, as is well known, was intrigued by formal symmetry and proportional balance; many of his works exhibit both micro and macro mirroring structures, such as arch forms. The Violin Concerto is no different. The second movement is a set of variations, while the third movement is a variation on the material presented in the first movement. Therefore, it’s important for a performance to present the Finale in a way that reflects the tempos and thematic connections to the first movement. Stern/Ansermet and Menuhin/Doráti manage that better, in my opinion, than does Stern/Bernstein.
It wasn’t until receiving Stern’s previously unreleased Bartók that I was able to make this three-way comparison, and it reinforced for me my general lack of appreciation for the Stern/Bernstein version. Of course, one could make many other comparisons as well, for Bartók’s Concerto has been quite lucky on record. There are superb performances by Henryk Szeryng with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (another favorite of mine, next to Menuhin), Gil Shaham with Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, and for something more recent, a recording by James Ehnes with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos.
I’ve limited my comparisons to the above three because of their proximal dates, because of the San Francisco connection (both Stern and Menuhin coming of age there, and my hearing the Concerto for the first time performed there by Menuhin), and because Menuhin had a special association with the piece, though he was not the first violinist to play it. Zoltán Székely gave the premiere with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw in 1939, while Tossy Spivakovsky gave the American premiere in 1943 with Artur Rodzi?ski and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Stern’s Bartók with Ansermet is a fine one, and preferable, I think, to his effort with Bernstein. When it comes to the Tchaikovsky Concerto on this disc, there isn’t much to say. Something that can be said of Stern is that he was a remarkably reliable, even-tempered player. He wasn’t an artist prone to either spontaneous white-hot inspiration or to having off days. When you bought a ticket to a Stern concert or a new Stern recording, you knew in advance what you were going to get, and what you got was never less than good, solid, professional musicianship of a very high caliber.
Frankly, I hear little difference between this 1958 Tchaikovsky with Maazel and the violinist’s studio recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra that same year. If there are any differences worth noting, they relate to the orchestral playing. The Swiss Festival Orchestra is an ad hoc assembly of musicians who come together annually for the Lucerne Festival. The players are all professionals, but they’re drawn from various ensembles around Switzerland and from various European orchestras. Well-rehearsed as they are, it would be disingenuous of me to say that they’re a match for the Philadelphia Orchestra in its prime under Ormandy. So, if you have the Stern/Ormandy Tchaikovsky in one or another of its various incarnations, I don’t think this one adds anything of any special merit to Stern’s recorded legacy. The Bartók, however, I believe does, so recommended to all audiences for the Bartók and to Stern fans in particular for a heretofore unpublished live performance recording of the Tchaikovsky.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 35 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Isaac Stern (Violin)
Written: 1878; Russia
Concerto for Violin no 2, Sz 112 by Béla Bartók
Isaac Stern (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1937-1938; Budapest, Hungary
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