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Portrait
Ivry Gitlis (violin)
Full track-listing at end of review
DECCA 5346246 [5 CDs: 342:47]

As a preliminary to writing this review, I watched an excellent film about the violinist on YouTube entitled ‘Inspiration, playing by heart’. What emerges from this documentary is a down-to-earth, well-loved and humorous individual, whose humanity shines through. Yet, Gitlis is a violinist who polarizes opinion. Noted for his originality, he’s definitely his own man. One could say that he is a maverick. For me, listening to his recordings, he gets straight to the heart of a piece, communicating it with his own individual brand of artistry.
 
These recordings, both live and studio, spanning twenty years, are tinged with visceral excitement. This is playing which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat.
 
At the time of writing, Gitlis is ninety-two and still has that zest for life. Born in 1922, he can count amongst his teachers such luminaries as Enescu, Thibaud and Flesch. I have always admired his early recordings which he made for Vox in the fifties. Even his choice of repertoire for his first recording was unorthodox – the Berg Violin Concerto and Chamber Concerto. Exceptionally fine is his Bartók Violin Concerto no. 2 and Solo Sonata from the same era - not to be missed.
 
First up on the menu are the two Paganini Concertos. Gitlis dispatches them like a man possessed; I don’t think I’ve heard such exciting performances. Passion, fire, you name it, it’s all here. He throws all caution to the wind. However, it is not all showy virtuosity, the lyrical passages, of which there are many, are realized with warmth and eloquence. The other shorter Paganini items have similar attributes. The price of the set is worth it for this CD alone.
 
Interestingly, though the Paganini Caprices were recorded in 1976, Gitlis only gave his blessing for their release in 2004. Quite why he had initial reservations about them puzzles me. Though they have been out on CD previously, this is the first time I have heard them, and I was blown away. They are Olympian performances, exhibiting a swashbuckling, pyrotechnical wizardry, suffused with a demonic aroma. Yet, they are not just technical exercises, each is played with commitment and musicality, displaying some specific aspect of fiddle technique. This traversal can happily stand side-by-side with versions by Rabin, Ricci and Perlman.
 
When it comes to the two Wieniawski Concertos, I have always preferred the First Concerto, which is the lesser-known of the two. Gitlis negotiates the technical intricacies with supreme skill. However, it is in the beautiful first movement A major cantabile theme and the big tune in the third where he disappoints. I find the mannered phrasing and arbitrary application of vibrato disturbs the contour of the melody. This is especially noticeable when I compare it with the Michael Rabin version (Philharmonia/Boult) who, for me, is unsurpassed in this work. Rabin confers a warmth and tonal allure which is missing in the Gitlis reading. The Op. 22 in D minor fares better. No-one could fail to be won over by the fervent ardor of the Adagio. The scintillating finale is a tour de force of rhythmic precision, where the violinist certainly gives Heifetz a run for his money.
 
It is a breath of fresh air to have the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto no. 2 and the ‘Morceau de Concert’, billed as no. 4, rather than the more familiar Third Concerto, included. Only the Third Concerto remains in the active repertoire today, yet these lesser known opuses have much to offer. The Second Concerto was, in fact, the first to be composed, but was published second. It has all the hallmarks of Saint-Saëns’ music - melody and invention. The violinist brings to both these works ebullience, virtuosity and charm. The composer’s Caprice for Violin and Orchestra in D major, previously unknown to me and located on CD 5, is likewise a veritable showpiece of melodic ingenuity.
 
Included in this set are two live performances of concertos with orchestra, which adds up to an added bonus. The Brahms Double Concerto is from 1971 where Gitlis is partnered by the French cellist Maurice Gendron (1920-1990). The Berg Concerto dates from 1967. Both concertos are in exceptional sound for their age and provenance. The Brahms is a beautifully managed performance with both players clearly on the same wavelength and offering a reading marked with a sense of shared purpose. It is in the Berg, however, that Gitlis makes his mark. Like his Vox recording, he is attuned to the psychological flow of this difficult music, traversing the emotional narrative with sensitivity and intelligence.
 
The last CD in the set is dedicated to violin miniatures, accompanied by piano, the recordings emanating from Tokyo. The selection showcases the violinist’s dazzling technique with mastery of staccato, spiccato, right and left hand pizzicato and harmonics, which all add sparkle and crackle to the proceedings. Intonation is notable for its dead-centre accuracy. The Kreisler pieces have an in-built Viennese charm. The Massenet ‘Thaïs’ is elegant and sophisticated, and the De Falla ‘Danse Espagnole’ is delivered with gusto and élan. The Bartók ‘Six Popular Romanian Dances’, have, to my mind, never been bettered.
 
Sound quality throughout is top-notch. This set should win over any doubters who are wary of dipping their toe in the water before being taken on what for me has been a roller-coaster ride. Gitlis draws you into his world. I’d urge you to take the plunge.
 
Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Brahms double concerto
 
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-Saëns) 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’ORTF/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 vida 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-Saëns, rec. 1968)