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As the name of this Profil set posits, the late Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis (1922-2020) is a legend – some would say a cult figure – in certain violin circles. After studies with luminaries such as George Enescu, Carl Flesch and Jacques Thibaud, Gitlis embarked on a wide-ranging career that encompassed not only the orchestral and solo recitals one might expect from a star violinist, but also innovative music festivals, a brief stint as an actor, performances with the Rolling Stones, and other oddball experiences that many classical musicians would (unfortunately!) eschew.
Gitlis continued to perform in public until his death. Late performances – many of which can be found on YouTube – feature questionable intonation, constant playing over the fingerboard (resulting in a raspy and unfocused sound), exaggerated use of portamento, on-and-off vibrato, and bizarre rubato. Fervent Gitlistas adore those autumnal concerts (read the comment sections on the YouTube videos), but the four CDs gathered here emphasize just how special a violinist Gitlis was in the flower of his youth. A number of the concerto recordings included by Profil were available for many years across two VoxBox sets, and are currently also available in a more recent 3-CD box from Brilliant Classics.
Most listeners will already be familiar with these concerto recordings, but for those new to Gitlis, the modern concerti are probably his greatest performances on disc. The Berg bristles with emotion, Gitlis’s fast, nervous vibrato lending a slightly hysterical air to music that benefits from such intensity. He performs a similar service for Hindemith’s violin concerto, finding appropriate forward motion in a piece that can often feel stagnant. This may be the minority report, but the Bartok concerto and sonata are impressive without reaching the heights of Yehudi Menuhin’s performances. Gitlis’s passion is explosive, but the older violinist finds more color and sentiment while never skimping on the pain and violence of the music. Stravinsky’s concerto receives a committed performance from Gitlis, who conjures up a brusque charm that suits the neo-classical score. These are all strong performances that could serve as reference recordings for these pieces if a listener wishes to find them all in one place.
The constant intensity of his vibrato and the wiry nature of Gitlis’s sound convince much less in the Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, and Sibelius concerti, which seem to cry out for a warmer approach. This is particularly true in the Mendelssohn concerto, whose first movement feels rushed and unnaturally pressured. The wild, Gypsy-esque portamento heard in the Bartok to good effect is injurious here. The violinist reins in his impulses in the final movement, but the result is acceptable without being exceptional. Heifetz partisans who secretly wish for more musical abandon might find these performances enjoyable.
Of greater interest to seasoned collectors will be the miscellaneous short pieces, which appear to be taken from radio broadcasts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The booklet gives no provenance for these recordings, but the dates and performers overlap with a recent Rhine Classics set of Gitlis broadcasts from this time period. There are a handful of standouts among the solo performances. The Chausson Počme recorded with pianist Odette Pigault in 1953 has the same overwhelming depth of feeling as his teacher George Enescu’s 1928 recording. Gitlis’s fast vibrato, exotic portamenti, and wiry sound suit Chausson’s masterpiece, giving it a desperate yet ecstatic quality not found in most other performances. The Bloch Nigun and Achron Hebrew Melody are similar in nature, played with swashbuckling Old Testament ardor. In the Tartini “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, one begins to hear some of the technical mannerisms that would later overtake Gitlis’s playing; there is much “shooting the bow” on long notes, resulting in an emphasized note without vibrato whose sound widens, and then whispers. Although one only hears it in a few passages, the wispy tone immediately identifies the violinist as Gitlis.
The sound on these discs is not noticeably improved from previous issues. The booklet notes and recording information are sparse, and the Bruch Concerto is mis-identified as being composed by Mendelssohn. The price is right, however, for newcomers who might want to explore the art of Ivry Gitlis.
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto (1935) [24:00] Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Violin Concerto (1939) [25:45]
Violin Sonata No 3 in E major, IPH 175 (1935) [9:46] Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Nigun – from Baal Shem Suite (1924) [5:54] Joseph ACHRON (1886-1925)
Hebrew Melody, Op 33 (1911) [5:19]
Pro Musica Symphony Orchestra, Wien, cond. William Strickland (Berg) – rec. 1953
Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, cond. Hans Rosbaud (Hindemith) – rec. 1962
Maurice Perrin, pianist (Hindemith Sonata) – rec. 1949
André Collard, pianist (Bloch and Achron) – rec. 1953
Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35 [29:46] Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 [24:06] Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
Capriccio-Valse in E major, Op 7 [6:11]
Polonaise de concert No 1 in D major, Op 4 [4:30] Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
La Fontaine d’Aréthuse (from Mythes, Op 30) [5:39]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra, cond. Heinrich Hollreiser (Tchaikovsky) – rec. 1954
Vienna Symphony Orchestra, cond. Hans Swarowsky (Mendelssohn) – rec. 1957
Antonio Beltrami, pianist (Wieniawski) – rec. 1955
Maurice Perrin, pianist (Szymanowski) – rec. 1949
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D major (1931) [22:28] Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No 2 (1938) [34:57]
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [20:31]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op 26 [22:00] Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 [28:02] Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Počme, Op 25 [14:21] Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770)
Violin Sonata in G minor, “Devil’s Trill” (arr. Kreisler) [12:06]