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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto ‘to the memory of an angel’ [25:19]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and orchestra Sz.80 [11:09]
Violin Concerto No.2 Sz.112 [36:24]
Isaac Stern (violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 26 January 1958 (Sz112), 6 February 1959 (Berg), 16 April 1962 (Sz80), New York

As well as being a violinist, Isaac Stern was a multi-talented musician, dividing his time between solo violin playing, chamber music and teaching. He excelled in all three. Never one to be limited, his talents over-spilled into other areas. He sponsored and mentored young violinists, including the likes of Perlman and Zukerman. In 1960, he spearheaded a campaign, together with the philanthropist Jacob Kaplan to save New York’s Carnegie Hall from demolition. Here he demonstrated his great organizational ability, highlighted by his shrewd networking and communication skills. He was also the inspiration behind the America-Israel Foundation which, to this day, provides scholarships for young musicians.
He was born in the Ukraine in 1920, his family moving shortly after to the USA, where they settled in San Francisco. Of all his teachers, he credited Naoum Blinder as his most important influence. As well as specializing in the Classical and Romantic repertoire, he also had an interest in contemporary music, giving premieres of works by William Schuman, Peter Maxwell Davies and Krzysztof Penderecki. As a chamber musician, he established a duo partnership with the pianist Alexander Zakin. He also formed a piano trio with Eugene Istomin (piano) and Leonard Rose (cello).

The three recordings featured here were originally released on Sony in the ‘Isaac Stern - A Life in Music’ series, though there is no acknowledgment of this. They have been re-mastered here in SACD quality.

It was the violinist Louis Krasner who first mooted the suggestion of a violin concerto to Berg in 1935. At the time, the composer had other plans. These all changed in the spring of that year when Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler, and a close personal friend died of poliomyelitis. Working quickly, Berg had composed a violin concerto by the August as a memorial to his friend. Tragedy struck again in the December, when the composer himself succumbed to septicaemia. Krasner gave the world premiere in Barcelona, April 1936, with Hermann Scherchen conducting.

Stern and Bernstein traverse an often painful and sad narrative, opening up this dark, tragic landscape. It’s all deeply-felt. Bernstein brings out the detail in the complex orchestral score with great subtlety. Stern is in technically good form, not afflicted by the instrumental deficiencies which were to afflict his playing in later years. For me, this performance stands shoulder to shoulder with my favourite versions of this work by such artists as Itzhak Perlman and Josef Suk.

The Bartók Second was composed in 1937-38, and dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely. It was premiered the following year in Amsterdam with Székely and the Concertgebouw under the baton of Willem Mengelberg. Stern had a robust and muscular tone which is ideal for this work. Using an impulse-type vibrato, his playing displays a wide range of tonal colour well-suited to a canvas such as this. He is able to achieve powerful sonority through the use of his bow arm. Like Menuhin, who also championed this concerto, with several recordings under his belt, Stern’s eloquent, expressive phrasing emphasizes its rhapsodic nature. The second Rhapsody is likewise given a full-blooded and compelling reading.

Several months ago I reviewed a live performance of this second concerto with Stern and the Swiss Festival Orchestra under  Ernest Ansermet, from the Lucerne Festival (Audite 95.624). I found this performance much more spontaneous than the studio one. It had a greater visceral excitement. Also the violin sound is more forward and immediate, thus rendering things generally more satisfying.

It is commendable that Praga have brought these three twentieth century works together from Stern’s discography. Bernstein provides inspirational support.

As a Hybrid SACD, the sound quality is an improvement on the original Sony issues. My only grumble would be the booklet notes which are in English and French. The English translation looks like one of those Google Chrome translations: almost comic.

Stephen Greenbank