Bach Gitlis RH024

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV1041
Violin Concerto in E, BWV1042
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043
Ciaccona (from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004)
Fuga (from Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005)
Gavotte en rondeau (from Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006)
Ivry Gitlis (violin)
Natalia Likhopoi (2nd violin)
Louisiana Museum Art Ensemble
rec. 1997, Studio DR, Copenhagen (concertos); live, 30 July 1990, Casals Hall, Tokyo

This year, 25 August to be precise, marked the centenary of the birth of Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis (1922-2020). This latest issue from Rhine Classics commemorates that significant occasion. This is the third release from the label featuring radio broadcasts, live airings, original masters, 78s and LP recordings, splendidly restored by producer Emilio Pessina, which have significantly bolstered the artist’s discography. My reviews of the other two sets can be found here (review ~ review). The added attraction of this newcomer is that it’s devoted exclusively to the composer J. S. Bach who’s music is notably absent in the previous releases.

Gitlis was born in Haifa to Russian parents. He began playing the violin at the age of five and made such progress as to impress Bronisław Huberman, who arranged for him to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. There he won first prize at the age of only thirteen. He later went on to study with George Enescu, Jacques Thibaud and Carl Flesch. Unlike other Flesch pupils, such as Ginette Neveu, Henry Szeryng and Ida Haendel, Gitlis was something of a maverick, noted for his highly individualized and idiosyncratic playing. He commands a much leaner tone, devoid of opulence, which in no way titillates the ear. Yet it generates a wealth of tonal colour and can never be termed monochrome. There’s also a strong, detectable gypsy influence, maybe deriving from his contact with Enesco. Yet, when all is said and done, he always made bold interpretative choices, which are certainly thought provoking.

The Bach Concertos are studio recordings made for Danish Radio in Copenhagen in March 1997. Gitlis, himself, directs the Louisiana Museum Art Ensemble. Those encountering Gitlis in Bach for the first time will need to acclimatise themselves to his very personal approach in terms of tonal qualities, individual articulation and on-off vibrato. The slow movements radiate warmth and are elegantly contoured, with portamenti sparing. The finales generate plentiful energy and are crisply articulated. The balance between soloist and orchestra is finely judged. Gitlis is joined by Natalia Likhopoi on 2nd violin for the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043. The performance is superb, with the soloists well-matched in tone and phrasing. The exquisite slow movement is heartfelt, with each violinist lovingly caressing the phrases in an intimate dialogue. The third movement is bright and joyous.

The three solo items, denoted as bonus tracks, derive from a live concert the violinist gave in Casals Hall, Tokyo on 30 July 1990. The performances are ushered in by some applause and tuning. The main item is Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. It’s not a performance I particularly warm to. The whole performance is too quirky and highly personalized for my taste. In the opening theme the chords, usually resonant, have a dull detonation. Tempi throughout are erratic, and rubato overdone. Intonation, though, is generally clean. I would have to pass over on this performance. In the Fuga from the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, Gitlis maintains an overall clarity of the polyphonic lines and intonation is good. However, his tempi fluctuations, which mar the Chaconne, are strikingly evident here. The Gavotte en rondeau from the Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 fares the best of the three works, being rhythmically buoyant and suitably animated.

The accompanying liner notes are substantial and offer a decent potted biography of the artist. It’s nice to have Natalia Likhopoi’s reminiscences of her collaboration with Gitlis. Welcome is a complete discography of the violinist included in the booklet. Finally, the addition of some beautifully produced photographs adds to the allure. All told, this is a worthy tribute to a remarkable technician and distinguished interpreter.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (September 2022)

Published: October 14, 2022