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Ivry Gitlis – Portrait
Full track-listing below
DECCA 5346246 [5 CDs: 342:47]

From Decca France, distributed by Discovery Records, comes a 5-CD box charting a corner of the repertoire of the combustible art of Ivry Gitlis. Now in his 90s this ever-questing magician of the fiddle is worthy of sustained salutes after a lifetime of freewheeling iconoclasm, independence of mind and spirit, and sheer refusal to buckle down to the expected dictates of a concert-giving straightjacketing. No wonder Nigel Kennedy loves him.
Most of the material comes from his back catalogue, but there are live performances here, all of which will be duly noted in this review. The first disc is given over to Paganini. The Concertos are with Stanislaw Wisłocki from 1966 with the piano-accompanied items with the veteran accompanist – the man who often accompanied Thibaud – Tasso Janopoulo dating from the following year. You would expect nothing else of Gitlis but committed, resinous playing – never aloof, never aristocratic, always charged and brilliantly incisive, often at the expense of tonal purity. The First Concerto embodies these qualities perfectly, with heart-stopping accelerandi, quivering tensile legato, intense vibrato, and a total unwillingness to take passagework for granted: has any violinist in recorded history brought passagework to simmering life as relentlessly as Gitlis? He plays the Sauret cadenza. His slow movement is constantly warmed, cajoled, tautened, breached, broached and occasionally buckled. Not for an instant will he settle for a pure-toned unvaried legato. In the first movement of the Second Concerto, for which he furnishes his own cadenza, there is a similar level of intervention and variation of colour, articulation and bow weight. The expressive finger position changes in the slow movement occasionally remind one of Heifetz but he reels off the left hand pizzicato in the Campanella finale with bewitching panache. In the smaller pieces he reveals pathos in the Cantabile and superb attack in I Palpiti.
Gitlis recorded the complete Paganini Caprices in Paris in 1976 but was unsatisfied with the results. He finally relented three decades later declaring that ‘they’re not as bad as all that’. Well, no indeed. He has something of late-middle period Ricci’s acerbity and incisive brilliance here, though Gitlis’s tone is more abrasive still. Some minor intonation and articulation problems come and go but they are minor – I wonder whether this is what Gitlis found unpalatable about the set. I noticed the slight change in acoustic between the two recording dates a couple or so months apart, but it’s not of any great concern. Surely what emerges from this blistering performance is Gitlis’s nonpareil powers of communicative intensity, as well as his ability to shape phrases into musical sense, never to use the music as a mere vehicle for the practice of violinistics – even when Paganini presents him with something of an opportunity to do so. The razory brilliance of the playing will probably alienate those who admire a silken and even tone production, but that is not and never was Gitlis’s interest.
For the central disc we turn to Wieniawski in 1969 and Saint-Saëns in 1968. He plays both the Wieniawskis with Jean-Claude Casadesus conducting the Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra. The results are typically dashing, vital, also pugnacious and daring. He is alive to the Bruch-like lyricism of the slow movement of the Op.14 but in the better known Second Concerto manages to colour and coil the music with remarkable energy, his expressive arsenal however remaining taut. Typically he plays one of the less-well know Saint-Saëns concertos, the Second, bringing a fulsome swing to it and a bardic romance to the violin and harp exchanges in the slow movement in answer to the stern orchestral statements. Parts of the playing achieve a truly searing level of intensity. The unfinished Fourth Concerto – eleven minutes - is ardently declaimed (it’s also known as the Morceau de concert) and note as well that the Caprice, Op.52 No.6 in Ysaÿe’s orchestration, can be heard at the end of the fifth and final disc.
The fourth disc presents live material. The Brahms Double, with Maurice Gendron, is with the Orchestra national de France conducted by Michel Tabachnik in February 1971. The ethos here is again febrile – how is it not with Gitlis – though seldom to the detriment of the music. Passionate and dramatically alive, the two string players don’t always make for the most obviously sympathetic of pairings, at least tonally speaking, but they manage to offer a more unusual, almost – at times - oppositional approach. Gitlis’s studio recording in Vienna of the Berg concerto with William Strickland is rightly an acclaimed part of his relatively small commercial legacy. It’s now in a Brilliant Classics boxed set devoted to the violinist. This French performance is no less impressive in its way, with the violinist’s tone taking on an increasing range of colours as the work generates its own comparable apotheosis. For Gitlis admirers the subtle differences make acquisition mandatory.
The last disc offers an emotive relief from this level of intensity with a series of smaller pieces recorded in Tokyo, recorded live. Most are from recitals with Shiego Neriki in May 1985, but the Brahms Hungarian Dance and Falla Danse espagnole were taped in 1989. The Bartók Romanian Dances come from recitals in December 1994 and January 1995. Gitlis’s art is heard in microcosm here, sometimes to an overpowering degree so unrelieved in the sound and so constant the changes of colour and bowing in this sequence. Thus whilst it’s marvellous to hear such personalised drama, the Debussy tends to wilt, the Kreisler pieces take on a rather different, rhythmic and tonal character form one usually encountered, and his nervously quivering portamenti tend to overbalance the works’ charm. Still, you won’t want to miss his Wieniawski Capriccio-Valse, his passionately abandoned Mendelssohn Wings of Song, or even the now rougher-toned by intensely communicative Bartók Romanian Dances.
Gitlis is a law unto himself, a frequent absence in the studios, but a magnificent example of ‘to thine own sense be true’. The musical world would be the poorer without his single-minded and capricious presence.
Jonathan Woolf

Full track-listing
CD 1/2
[75:03/ 68:41]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.6 [29:10]
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.7 [27:20]
I Palpiti, Op.13 [8:18]
Cantabile, Op.17 [3:38]
Sonatine No.12, Op.3 No.6 [3:15]
Minuet [2:56]
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislaw Wisłocki
Tasso Janopoulo (piano)
rec. 1966 (concertos) and 1967
24 Caprices for solo violin, Op.1 [68:41]
rec. 1976

CD 3 [77:12]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.14 [20:53]
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.22 [17:11]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.58 [27:55]
Violin Concerto No.4 unfinished, Op.62 [11:11]
Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra/Jean-Claude Casadesus
Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra/Eduard van Remoortel (Saint-Saëns)
rec.1968 (Saint-Saens) and 1969 (Wieniawski)

CD 4 [52:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, Op.102 [29:47]
Alban BERG (1885-1937)
Violin Concerto, ‘to the memory of an angel’ [23:12]
Maurice Gendron (cello)/Orchestre National de l’ORFT/Michel Tabachnik (Brahms) and Fritz Rieger (Berg)
rec. July 1967 (Berg) and February 1971 (Brahms)

CD 5 [68:52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La fille aux cheveux de lin arr. Arthur Hartmann [2:25]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Caprice Viennois [3:57]
Liebesleid [4:16]
Schön Rosmarin [2:00]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Humoresque arr. Fritz Kreisler [3:48]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Capriccio-Valse, Op.7 [6:57]
Grigoras DINICU (1889-1949)
Hora staccato arr. Jascha Heifetz [2:12]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation from Thaïs [4:31]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
On Wings of Song, Op.34 No.2 [3:34] TRADITIONAL
Londonderry Air arr. Fritz Kreisler [4:11]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pièce en forme de habanera [2:48]
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen, Op.20 [8:28]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dance No.1 [3:13]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Danse espagnole – La vide breve [3:23]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Six Popular Romanian Dances [6:14]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Caprice, d’après l’etude en forme de valse, Op.52 No.6 orch. Eugène Ysaÿe [7:05]
Shiego Neriki (piano) and Shuku Iwasaki (piano: Brahms, Falla, Bartók)
rec. 1985 Tokyo, live; Jun 1989 (Brahms, Falla); 1994-95 (Bartók)
Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra/Eduard van Remoortel (Saint-Saens, rec. 1968)