ALBUM TITLE: Isaac Stern: A Life in Music, Vol.2
PERFORMER: Symphony of the Air/Bernstein, French National Orchestra/Maazel
CATALOGUE NO: SMK 64508 ADD/DDD (1956/87)
This second set of Sony’s valuable Isaac Stern retrospective (also a nine-disc box on Sony SX9K 67194, K565) moves from the safe harbours of the first edition’s core repertoire into the rewarding but choppy seas of the 20th century. What an indisputable accolade for Stern, therefore, that he meets every test with passion, commitment and all of his accustomed musical integrity. Any lack of Iberian mystery from Ormandy and the Philadelphia is amply compensated for by Stern’s sensual heat-haze in the Lalo and he is quick to show how much he means business when emerging from the string tremolo at the beginning of the Saint-Saens. A round-up of the usual pot-boiler suspects includes an especially tender Chausson Poeme.
The remainder of this set falls into two distinct categories: the acknowledged masterpieces of 20th-century violin concertos and those works for which Stern was either the dedicatee or closely involved with in early performances. I would suggest that for all the wonderful lyricism, spectacular virtuosity and searching depth of his playing in the concertos of Bartok, Prokofiev and Berg he faces severe competition from the somewhat cooler performances of Kyung Wha Chung on Decca. The Stravinsky concerto, however, is of tremendous historical importance and finds Stern in complete sympathy with the composer-conductor’s no-nonsense approach.
The Hindemith concerto, while not exactly revealing itself as an unregarded masterpiece, gets just the right degree of tempered bombast and pastoralism – suggesting that here is a piece ripe for reassessment.
Stern’s Barber concerto is a classic. Sony’s 20-bit remastering can’t quite eliminate the ‘in-your-face’ nature of the recorded sound but he is absolutely there from the very first note. Bernstein, it goes without saying, is there too. The slow movement awaits its Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson: the briefest encounter should hook us all!
The Dutilleux is a piece of post-impressionism well worthy of exploration and its dedicatee rewards its shimmering tone-colours with all the appropriate poetry — as he does the strange and strangely beautiful slow movement of Maxwell Davies’s concerto.
Stern was the soloist in the premiere of Bernstein’s Serenade and his 1956 performance is totally unembarrassed by its schmaltz in a way that eludes Kremer’s live 1978 recording (on DG) which has merits of its own. It’s one of Lenny’s greatest scores and deserves the much wider audience that this reissue should afford it.
All in all, a second triumph for Stern and Sony, but can I be the only fiddleophile who wishes that the documentation might detail the instrument used once in a while? David Wilkins