Sony Classics is giving Isaac Stern the Immortal Legend treatment: 44 CDs--all individual, mid-priced discs--of recordings from the '60s and '70s, the kind of thing usually accorded venerated artists either retired or in their graves.
Stern is, at 75, still before the public, although anyone coming for the first time to his playing in concert or even in recent recordings couldn't be blamed for wondering what the shouting is about.
Listen to these reissues, my children, particularly those that constitute a sort of survey of the 20th-Century violin concerto, and you'll understand.
Start with the two concertos of Prokofiev (64503), separated by 18 years (1917, 1935) but cut from the same cloth. They are characteristic of the great 20th-Century composers: No matter how modernist these composers' attitudes in other areas, when it came to the violin concerto they were traditionalists, bringing into play a latent feeling for the long, singing line for which the instrument was created.
The Prokofiev concertos are ideal Stern material: music that wears its heart on its sleeve and then mocks itself, with acid harmonies and jagged rhythms, for doing so. Stern gleefully shows off his huge, burnished tone--rounder, darker, with a slower vibrato than Heifetz's--coupled with a dynamic palette of improbable variety. He isn't helped, however, by the listless backing of Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. In the two Bartok Rhapsodies that complete the program, Leonard Bernstein, leading the same orchestra, is a much more tuned-in, fiery collaborator.
Bartok treats the violin as a rowdy Hungarian folk fiddle in the Rhapsodies, where in his two concertos it's the most impassioned of lyric instruments.
The Second Concerto (1938) is a core component of the modern repertory, and its performance by Stern, Bernstein and the New Yorkers is grandly, passionately conceived. The release (64502) is made indispensable by the inclusion of the youthful First Concerto (1908), discovered and published long after the composer's death. It's a delicate ode to lost love, not as yet in the harsher vein that Bartok would mine in the years that produced his best-known works. The Stern-Bernstein performance is as uninhibitedly gorgeous as we have any right to expect from musicians of such sophistication. Don't miss it.
Paul Hindemith's 1939 Concerto (64507) is the most expansively Brahmsian of that sober composer's creations, and the most virtuosic, qualities hardly lost on Stern. But he's also an impatient protagonist here, rushing and piling on the tension when some lingering and thoughtfulness are in order.
Hindemith is coupled with Poland's once fashionably dour and cranky Krzysztof Penderecki, who turns his back on shock tactics and gives us, in his 1976 Concerto, dedicated to Stern, lots of dissonant lamenting (Gorecki fans, proceed with caution). The lyric line is present, but coherence is not.
If Hindemith honors the past, Samuel Barber (on 64506) gives the impression of wanting wholly to retreat into it with the most Romantic neo-Romantic concerto in captivity. Barber's beauty--like Hindemith's, from 1939--is delivered with soaring, throbbing, unapologetic lushness by Stern, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the playing of whose oboe soloist, the late Harold Gomberg, is alone worth the price of admission.
The companion concerto was written for Stern in 1985 by Britain's Peter Maxwell Davies, a composer known for his wide stylistic swings, from dense, tense avant-gardism to, in this case, a more approachable neoclassicism. Stern seems to have played this compellingly dramatic piece a few times and dropped it, perhaps because its technical demands have proved too burdensome as he has gotten older. But in this recording, he certainly gives it his enormous all, strongly seconded by Andre Previn and the London Symphony.
Respected American composer George Rochberg also has written specifically for Stern. In the 1970s, Rochberg was a central figure in the New Romanticism's revolt against audience-distancing serial technique.
Rochberg may think he's paying homage to the Romantics in his 1975 Concerto (64505), but the result is Romanticism without the romance, and without the melodies.
His effort is further diminished by its present disc-mate: Igor Stravinsky's aggressively witty 1931 Concerto, one of the rare 20th-Century violin concertos that disdain singing in favor of stinging. Stern's interpretation, recorded in the Hollywood American Legion Hall with the composer conducting the Columbia Symphony, has been with us since 1960 (not 1951 as stated in Sony's printed insert). It's likely to be around forever.
More from Stern, his proteges and successors in an upcoming On the Record.