Classical Reissue Reviews

Lucerne Festival – Isaac Stern = TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112 – Isaac Stern, v./ Swiss Festival Orch./ Lorin Maazel (Tchaikovsky)/ Ernest Ansermet – Audite

Previously unreleased performances by Isaac Stern at the Lucerne Festival reveal him as a consummate master of the scores he surveys.

Published on September 25, 2013

Lucerne Festival – Isaac Stern = TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112 – Isaac Stern, v./ Swiss Festival Orch./ Lorin Maazel (Tchaikovsky)/ Ernest Ansermet – Audite

Lucerne Festival – Isaac Stern = TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112 – Isaac Stern, v./ Swiss Festival Orch./ Lorin Maazel (Tchaikovsky)/ Ernest Ansermet – Audite 95.624, 69:43 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) revealed a dual personality to those who knew him, and the extremes in his nature could prove trying and counterproductive to the artistic persona he preferred to maintain. As a consummate musician and cultural ambassador, Stern could be tireless, especially renowned for his efforts to save Carnegie Hall as a musical shrine and his endorsements on behalf of selected young musicians and modern compositions. But in his hegemony with Columbia Artists Management and its influence over those who appeared at Carnegie Hall, Stern could be ruthless, and many a perceived rival suffered ostracism from its sacred precincts. Apocrypha has it that his esteemed Stern-Rose-Istomin Trio disbanded over the absurd reason that they could not agree as to which of them was to enter the stage first.

For his appearance in 23 August 1958, Stern has the youthful talent of Lorin Maazel – making his own Lucerne debut – at the podium in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, played with a fine-honed finesse in spite of the usual cuts in the score. In 1958, Stern’s intonation peaked in its accurate resonance, perhaps due to the simple regimen of constant practice. As his musical life and social demands became more insistent in the course of building his “empire,” his accuracy faltered and his intonation became flabby. He hastens through the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, a truly breathless account meant to raise the roof. The tender sensibilities of the Canzonetta shine through Stern’s rapt and intimate phrasing, his parlando style a silken fit for Tchaikovsky’s often balletic figures.  Stern milks the broad strokes of the Finale’s opening bars, and then he cuts loose with a scintillating rendition of the vivacissimo section, adding a spicy punch to the Russian dance supported by the French horn. Just when we assume the height of speed and audacity has reached the stratosphere, Stern and Maazel manage to find another level of aether to ascend. Quite a ride for Tchaikovsky, this performance!

Stern collaborates with Swiss conducting maestro Ernest Ansermet (18 August 1956) in the Bartok Second Concerto, a hearty performance marked by deliberate, articulate phrasing and clear periods. The Swiss Orchestra still found this music novel, in spite of having performed it with Menuhin in 1947, and occasional errors in intonation and entries occur. The balance between grotesquerie and heartfelt lyricism prevails, however; and when the music does wax rhapsodic, the expressive power certainly reminds us of the authenticity Menuhin brought to the Bartok ethos. Ansermet evinces his own persuasive powers in the sudden onrushes of impulsive energy, although quite intent on preserving the through-composed main tune in its various guises. The cadenza relishes a decisive Magyar, gypsy fervor, well anticipating figures in the Solo Sonata. The momentum picks up with the orchestral entry; and even through momentary flights of passionate nostalgia, the music achieves a stunning peroration, breaking Stern’s E string.

A delayed harp entry does not detract from the emotive power of the Andante tranquillo, a haunted meditation in Bartok’s patented “night music” modality.  The degree of transparent intimacy literally fades into the air, as though we were surrounded by revered spirits. The last movement, Allegro molto, a veritable whirlwind in cyclic form, renegotiating the same materials from the first movement, has Stern and Ansermet on a keen edge of emotional control and Dionysiac frenzy. Stern’s piercing violin tone finds a kindred spirit in the side drum and spitting brass parts. At the music’s febrile, metrically intricate conclusion the audience virtually howls with appreciation.

—Gary Lemco




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