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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 26 (1868) [23.33]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole Op. 21 (1873) [33.09]
Isaac Stern (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. Town Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 13 February 1967 (Lalo); 22 February 1966 (Bruch). ADD
SONY CLASSICS 88697 00817 2 [57.02]

This disc comes at budget-price is Sony’s Great Performances series by the leading performers of the period 1960-1990. In the field of violin virtuosity then was none finer than the great Isaac Stern (1920-2001). Stern is recorded here, without a doubt, in his prime. The same goes for the Philadelphia Orchestra under their regular conductor for 44 years the great Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985). All of these performers share a rapport. With these recordings you are eavesdropping on a vintage period.

It’s often said that the best Spanish music has been written by Frenchmen. Think of Chabrier or Ravel, Debussy and Bizet whose influential Carmen had been written just two years before Lalo started work on this ‘Symphonie’. I often wonder if Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was at least partially responsible. He was a poet, set to music by Fauré, Saint-Saëns and others. He also wrote an extremely successful travel book about Spain ‘Voyage en Espagnole’ completed in 1845. This caught the imagination of many, and quite possibly of Eduard Lalo, who is one of several ‘one work composers’. Practically nothing else of his ever gets a chance of regular performance. The odd thing is that this famous work is not really a symphony at all, being in five non-related movements with an Intermezzo placed third. For that matter it is not a conventional concerto either. But neither is it an easy piece to tackle with many famously treacherous passages and several short-lived changes of tempo. Needless to say Stern negotiates them faultlessly and utterly convincingly. Indeed this is a totally reliable performance, both in execution, tempo and recorded balance. Every note is clear and the phrasing beautiful and immaculate.

Talking of one work composers, Max Bruch almost falls into that category. I say almost because one or two other pieces are reasonably well known, ‘Kol Nidrei’ being one and the ‘Scottish Fantasy’ is another. Nevertheless this first concerto (there are three in all), written when Bruch was 30 years old, is by far his most played and is the best known by ‘Joe Public’, or should I say the regular Classic FM listener. You must forget that it is so often heard and just enjoy the playing. To me it’s immaculate. True, the recording, as indeed in the Lalo, is a little colourless and sometimes boxy. The strings suffer especially from this defect. True, the full frontal impact of the brass writing does not always come across but the elegant woodwind playing, especially in movement one, amply makes up for that. True, the tempo of the slow movement is quite sluggish but it’s all so lovable and is somehow just right. Incidentally I am not coming to this recording from the view-point of having known it since I was, well, knee-high to a music teacher. I have only been listening to it for a few weeks, so I have an unbiased viewpoint. It will have become obvious to you that I am not going to compare Stern’s interpretations with the myriad others who have recorded these works. I could, I suppose, have mentioned Tasmin Little’s forthright Bruch concerto on EMI or Sarah Chang’s very Spanish-sounding Lalo also on EMI, but there are too many others.

Unlike some others in Sony’s so called ‘Great Performances’ series this is truly what it is cracked up to be. This is a version you could safely give to your mother-in-law.

Gary Higginson


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