Notes and Editorial Reviews
Isaac Stern (vn); Alexander Schneider, cond; Radio France CO; Alexander Zakin (pn)
01897 (DVD: 78:10)
Violin Concertos: No. 3 in G; No. 5 in A. Adagio in E.
Solo Violin Sonata No. 1:
Violin Sonata in d,
Of the handful of violinists often cited as the greatest of the mid 20th century, Isaac Stern (along with Jascha Heifetz) may be least plentifully represented on DVD. EMI’s collection of performances should therefore be most welcome, especially since, like Heifetz, Stern made a very strong visual impression. All the footage of the works by Mozart comes from INA Archives of performances given on January 29, 1973, and broadcast respectively on December 27 and February 28, 1975 (concertos), and April 11 of the same year (the Adagio and Rondo); the program with Alexander Zakin, including movements from Bach’s First Solo Sonata, took place in the Salle Gaveau in Paris on April 1, 1965, and therefore reflects Stern’s manner of playing almost a decade earlier.
However imposing Stern’s presence might have been on stage, his actual violin-playing didn’t possess the immediately identifiable individuality of Heifetz’s or, say, Francescatti’s (though he reputedly replaced Francescatti as Columbia’s violinistic star). Nevertheless, as his reading of Mozart’s Third Concerto makes clear, his beefy personality revealed itself, if not at once, yet with the force of a gale wind, as in the dramatic gestures of the first movement’s recitatives. Still, that movement sounded simpler and more direct than it did in his earliest reading; and Schneider proved both a sympathetic and an alert conductor. Stern chose Sam Franko’s cadenzas, as he had in the past, adding this time an expressive moment
; and he played along with the final tutti. Stern’s tone production changed over the years, and he began the Adagio of the Concerto with a very discreet, narrow vibrato, which he broadened considerably and then tightened again during the course of the movement. The passages on the lower strings sound lush, and he balanced them with steely strength on the upper strings. The cadenza featured sonorous double-stops, almost a trademark, and effortless string crossing. The finale sounded tangier and zestier than it did in his earliest reading (though without sacrificing any roundness of tone), except, perhaps surprisingly, in the first part of the middle section, which isn’t so piquant—but he compensates in the robust passages that follow.
Stern played the violin’s introduction to the Fifth Concerto with a restrained vibrato similar to that which he employed in the Third Concerto’s slow movement, but he set out on the Allegro aperto with string-popping energy. Throughout, he played with a lustiness that challenges more “sensitive” performances like those of Maxim Vengerov EMI 78374, 30:6, and that makes carping at the few missed notes seem trivial and almost flippant. And that same exuberance transformed Joachim’s cadenza, which many students of my generation thought pointlessly prolix, into a dynamic
tour de force
. Before the beginning of the slow movement, he seemed to be adjusting something under his left lapel; in interviews, he’d talked about concealing padding there rather than attaching a shoulder rest to the violin. By beginning passages up-bow (on the down beat), he facilitated a natural dynamic ebb and flow. Once again, Joachim’s cadenza sounded vibrant, with an extra dollop of intense vibrato. The finale, which Stern began with a somewhat eccentric articulation of the main theme, proceeded through periods of roughness in the episode—roughness that even hostile listeners may be inclined to assume he intended.
While Stern made the Adagio in E sound too pure to be forced, yet too forceful to be quite pure, his reading could spellbind listeners in a way that Milstein’s couldn’t (EMI 90117, 27:2). Stern used to tell how the young Itzhak Perlman almost seemed to be daring him not to listen; he may have admired that attitude so deeply because he himself struck it so regularly. Yet the movement’s soaring flights made a stronger impression than the relatively heavy accents in which he seemed to take such pleasure.
While the first notes of the beginning of Bach’s Adagio from the First Solo Sonata sounded clipped (by the engineers, or to accommodate a superimposed announcement?), Stern played with a more colorful vibrato characteristic of his earlier playing, emphasizing long dynamic arches that span phrases; this breadth saved the Adagio from plodding note by note, though the underlying regularity sometimes threatened to allow the trees to obscure the forest. Stern made an effort to separate lines in the Fuga, yet many listeners will miss Milstein’s profoundly personal insights or Grumiaux’s aristocratic purity. To hear him approximate the nobility of Bach’s rhetoric more closely, viewers can watch his performance of the Chaconne on VAI 4368.
Geminiani’s brief Sonata, lasting only about six and a half minutes, may provide a surprise for those who don’t associate Stern with the Italian Baroque. But in this reading, he recalled Grumiaux’s elegance in that repertoire while remaining true to his own robust forcefulness and the rich sonorities of the lower strings in the first movement. He made Kreisler’s
into a stylish sparkler.
Among violinists, Stern may have been most like Denny Crane (William Shatner’s character in
)—too dependent at times on his reputation (perhaps necessarily so) but almost always an irresistible force. In any case, even his detractors should find these performances compelling. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin no 3 in G major, K 216 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Isaac Stern (Violin)
Radio France Chamber Orchestra
Written: 1775; Salzburg, Austria
Date of Recording: 1/29/1973
Schön Rosmarin by Fritz Kreisler
Alexander Zakin (Piano),
Isaac Stern (Violin)
Date of Recording: 4/1/1965
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