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
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
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
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.