Gitlis’s recordings readily appeal to the venturesome, and to the open-minded. This is partly a question of repertoire, as he has espoused a lot of twentieth century music, but it is also to do with his sound - his tone, his bowing, his vibrato usage - and to the very personalised approach he has adopted to standard concertos and sonatas. This has not always endeared him to the rectitudinous but it has granted him a degree of ‘maverick’ status amongst fellow musicians and admirers. I’ve heard him in concert, and the audience was duly represented by both such groups. I was struck on that occasion by his charm and, to be precise, his good manners in presenting his young piano accompanist with the opportunity to play more than one, extended, solo.
I’ve had a mixed experience over the years listening to him on disc. But these Vox recordings represent some of his best playing. The Tchaikovsky
is with the Vienna Symphony and Heinrich Hollreiser. Gitlis predictably engages in some unusual changes of colour and inflexion and rubato. His tone is famously spiky, lacking the obvious sensual or magisterially broad range of more famous exponents. But his ‘post-Huberman’ resources are striking, as indeed are the exchanges with an outsize clarinet principal – or the outsize recording engineers’ intentions, more likely. The slow movement is plausibly Russian, very intense, not at all songful but vehemently warm-blooded. And like many Gitlis recordings, the finale has a fair degree of believable spontaneity about it – bold and masculine. The Bruch
is good too after its fashion. The start is hardly stealthy, the violin entering very loudly; another recording miscalculation. The tenor here is upfront boldness with his accompanist Horenstein stretching out very elastically at a couple of points. Theirs is not the elegant and rich boned approach of other pairings, it need hardly be added but as usual Gitlis’s finale is purposeful, propulsive and very exciting.
I wondered, as I was listening to the Sibelius
(again with Horenstein), whether Gitlis had listened to Ginette Neveu and decided on balance he probably had. He would certainly have had opportunities to hear her in concert, or on disc. But more than this, one notices Gitlis’s very individualistic approach all-round. In higher positions there’s a tense, oscillatory quality that gives the playing an edgy, uneasy quality – the opposite, for instance, of Anja Ignatius’s way with it. Gitlis is vehement but not strident. His playing has a bold sense of projection but it certainly stands at a remove from more central recommendations. His Mendelssohn
is with Hans Swarowsky. It starts eagerly, pressing forward but in the slow movement Gitlis’s over-quick vibrato limits tone colours. He’s rather razory in the finale, which he takes quickly. He’s never dull, but he fails to convince.
From here on we discover works that I tend to think of as his natural metier, which is music from the second quarter of the twentieth century. His Bartók
is really impressive. He joins with Horenstein once again for the Second Concerto and here he evinces a natural authority which, on its own terms, rivals that of Menuhin and Rostal, to cite two almost contemporaneous recordings. Gitlis has the febrile intensity for this work, and he has a command of its rhetoric and its narrative development. The sense of characterisation is finely etched, and the collaboration with Horenstein is solid – a conductor who really insists on some deep, dark bass tone from the Vienna Symphony. The solo sonata is played with colossal commitment and a sense of fiery abandon often characterised as ‘gypsy’ in Gitlis’ case. I think, rather, that he catches the folkloric spirit in such a way that it lives from the inside out; also that his intense vibrato promotes an ethos of incessant drama and motion. Heady stuff.
Sometimes in the Berg
Concerto one feels that the engineers have slightly skewed the balance with the result that orchestral detail is skimped in favour of solo detailing. But never mind. This is playing of devoted passion. It resonates and lives. There are, of course, plenty of better recordings and indeed more precise and pretty performances. No one is claiming this as an exemplar of those virtues. But Gitlis plays with memorable and indeed heroic drama. William Strickland is the conductor. Gitlis is a great elucidator. He plays music as if he means it, believes in every ounce of it, and is unprepared to produce half-hearted performances, or go through the motions. Whether he does, in reality, have a template for a particular work seems unlikely. He would doubtless find the idea abhorrent. Take the Hindemith
. Oistrakh and Ruth Posselt played this memorably around the same time as Gitlis. However with his full-blooded intensity and his uncanny ability to lead one to the natural crest of a phrase, and the inbuilt architecture of a work, Gitlis proves very much a worthy exponent. His unveiling of the beautiful slow movement is itself beautifully conceived. And of course there’s his fiery finale. The Westphalia Symphony Orchestra and Hubert Reichert provide solid support. The Stravinsky
is with the Concerts Colonne Orchestra and Harold Byrns. Sharply contoured and finely etched, this is another study in fulsome control. There’s a particularly heavily vibrated intensity to his playing that contrasts with the ‘blanche’ approach of other players. There’s no holding back, no concession; this is Stravinsky red in tooth and claw.
Collectors will know that the first two discs here replicate Vox CDX25502, and that Brilliant has sourced the third disc from other Vox sessions of the time. I think Gitlis’s many adherents will have most of this already. But newcomers to his art will find this 3 CD set a fascinating, provoking and often brilliant realisation of his greatest qualities.