Prokofiev and Sibelius my reasons to buy - and treasure - th
Discophage | France | 09/18/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 3-CD set, one of the first instalments of the great Isaac Stern Collection, reissues some of the violinists earliest concerto recordings, made between 1946 (Wieniawski's 2nd Concerto and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen) and 1958 (Prokofiev's First Concerto). In fact the Wieniawski was Stern's first Concerto recording (March 27 1946), while the Sarasate (under Franz Waxman) was actually recorded, a few months later, for the film "Humoresque" with Joan Crawford and John Garfield, directed by Jean Negulesco. I'll concentrate my comments on the Prokofiev and Sibelius Concertos, as these were my main reason to buy this set and remain, for me, its main interest (Bernstein's Serenade might have been also, but I already had that same recording in another and preferable, all-Bernstein Japanese Sony set).
Stern must be the violinist who made the most recordings of Prokofiev's two Violin Concertos: three in all. Ruggiero Ricci made two, Perlman three (and the last one is in fact a live recording) but only of the second Concerto, and likewise those who made more than one (Szigeti, Heifetz, Kogan, Szeryng...) made them only of one of the two Concertos. I haven't heard Stern's last essay, with Mehta in 1982 (Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2), but the second recording, made in 1963 with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, is considered the "classic" account - and justifiably so: it is indeed a superb reading (see my review of Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2).
Still, I retain a soft tooth for these earlier recordings, both with the New York Philharmonic. The 2nd was recorded first, in 1957, with Bernstein, and the 1st was made the year after with Mitropoulos. Overall, all the characteristics of Stern's later reading are already present. Opulent tone, an ideal mixture of lyricism and bite. Differences lie in the slightly more pressed tempos with Mitropoulos in the first movement of the 1st Concerto - and the added spaciousness with Ormandy is welcome, I must say, although the earlier version's more high-strung approach is certainly not detrimental. On the other hand Stern and Ormandy in 1963 don't emulate the hair-raising dash and intensity of Stern and Mitropoulos' middle scherzo. I know only one other reading that matches it: Oistrakh live with Kubelik at the Prag Festival in 1947, but it comes in dismal sound (Concertos - Liszt/Prokofiev/Khachaturian). But to me what gives the edge to the earlier versions is the mesmerizingly beautiful slow movement of the 2nd Concerto with Bernstein: Stern took it then significantly slower than his later self (and then anybody I've heard except Oistrakh, Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Violin Sonata No. 2), and this added "long-breath" makes it ineffably beautiful, I find.
When it was published in 1963 Stern's new version was obviously going to be favored if only for sonic reasons (although, the CD reissue has a short, 10" drop-out in the finale where the sound jarringly jumps to mono). But, as the CD transfers amply prove, the later version's sonic superiority had more to do with the earlier pressings and LP surfaces than with the recording itself: as remastered on the "Early Concerto Recordings" they sound stupendously good, with spacious sound and almost as many orchestral details coming out - not the important tuba theme in the 1st Concerto's scherzo, unfortunately, and I might have wished for more clarity in the tuba-trumpet dialogues after 4:26 in the finale - but let us not quibble, given the musical beauties of these recordings.
Beecham made the premiere recording of Sibelius' Violin Concerto, in 1935, with Heifetz (Heifetz Plays Strauss (Violin Sonata op. 18), Sibelius (Violin Concerto), Prokofiev (Violin Concerto 2); a few months earlier he had also made the Premiere recording of Prokofiev's 1st Concerto, but that was with Szigeti, Prokofiev: Violin Concerto Number 1), so it is fitting that he should return to it, 16 years later, with young Isaac Stern. Beecham gave the impression of a laid-back, easy-going British gentleman, an impression somewhat offset perhaps by his acerbic sense of humor. Anyway, don't be misled: he conducts with fire, bite, great energy. The brass chords strike like whiplashes. There is something wonderfully Heifetzian in his and Stern's approach: they dash forward and thus elicit a great lyrical intensity. Actually, their timings in the first movement are very close to Heifetz' in 1935, and where they diverge is in the brooding passage after 11:28 (11:26 for Heifetz) where Stern is more expansive. Stern's finale is superbly muscular, although in the movement's fiendish leaps, like every other violinist I've heard except Hilary Hahn on Schoenberg Violin Concerto Op.36/Sibelius Violin Concerto Op.47 (and that includes Heifetz, in his earlier as well as his 1959 stereo remake, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Glazunov: Violin Concertos [Hybrid SACD]), he seems at times to be hanging in there by the skin of his teeth; still, he plays with superb tone throughout (Heifetz sounds strained in places, in 1959 more than in 1935, but he also dashes even faster in 1959), and at a basic tempo that is in fact faster than Heifetz', although, unlike Heifetz, he doesn't sustain it throughout and becomes somewhat bogged down, particularly in some of the double and triple-stop passages (at 1:50 and again 4:27). Anyway, this version was one of the glories of the mono era, and remains one of classic recordings of this piece. The 1951 mono sonics don't sound as ample and clear as in the Prokofiev Concertos.
The only other piece on this set for which I've done substantial comparative listening is Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. It necessitates a tricky balancing act between not eschewing the composition's schmaltz and not overplaying it either (and the phrase could be turned around); Stern and Ormandy tread the fine line between "just right" and "slightly too much", but it is a reading full of swagger, preferable interpretively to their 1967 remake (Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole; Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1) which has become slightly more heavy-handed (sonics are evidently another matter: in 1956 the violin stands out loud and clear but not all orchestral details come through). But why Stern conspicuously applies tons of rubato in the first violin flourish just after the intro, where Lalo has instructed "tempo rigoroso", that beats me.
Great documentation of the early years of an already exceptional artists, with outstanding liner notes, in the form of an essay by the violinist himself, reminiscing on and giving wonderful anecdotes about his collaborations with David Oistrakh and with some of the conductors represented here: Beecham, Ormandy, Mitropoulos, Bernstein and Franz Waxman.