Monday, 26 June 2017

Ivry Gitlis

Recently, trying to squeeze a violin CD played by someone whose surname began with “G” on to my violinist shelving, I discovered the “G”s were pretty well full (thanks also to Arthur Grumiaux). It was then that I discovered I had no less than 13 CDs of recordings by Ivry Gitlis, the Israeli violinist born in 1922 (and still with us, living happily in Paris). Gitlis was always a somewhat idiosyncratic violinist, but with a wonderful sound and a pretty well flawless technique. I heard him play in London many years ago – when he must have been over 80 years old. He was still Gitlis (playing Saint-Saëns) but with the fabulous technique a little under strain; not surprisingly. A quick look in Wikipedia shows Gitlis having made many, many recordings over the decades, with a notable absence of much Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. As part of Gitlis's highly individual sound, there is often odd choppy phrasing and rhythm, a kind of anti-legato – which almost sounds contrived. His use of on-off vibrato became a mannerism, and bars of “dead vibrato” often make me wince. However, he had a cast-iron violin technique and intonation, like a good Carl Flesch pupil and colleague with Flesch, with Bronislav Gimpel, Joseph Hassid, and Ginette Neveu.

On Le Violon Enchanté CD (Philips, Japan, 1994, 22 tracks) Gitlis is heard at his best in Bartok's Six Romanian Dances; at his least best in the Handel sonata (Op 1 No.15).

Extravaganza (EMI, Japan 1989, 14 tracks) confirms that I enjoy Gitlis most in fast music, where his on-off vibrato, choppy phrasing and exaggerated rubato can intrude least. He turns in a fine Devil's Trill sonata. Chopin's posthumous nocturne (arranged by Milstein) is well played, but does not have the “heart” of the recording by his fellow Flesch pupil, Ginette Neveu (arranged there by Rodionov).

Méditation de Thaïs (EMI, Japan, 1985, 19 tracks). For me, some of the pieces suffer from Gitlis's odd rubato, and his attempt to phrase so that the violin “speaks”, rather than sings. Dvorak's Songs my Mother Taught Me suffers from this, as do Bloch's Nigun, and Rachmaninov's Daisies. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Hartmann) comes off well. Gitlis seems to have an affection for Fritz Kreisler's pieces and arrangements, and both Liebesleid and Danny Boy come off well. The Méditation from Thaïs gets a very fine performance; Hora Staccato is good, but not in the Dinicu / Heifetz class. Excellent Zigeunerweisen (as expected).

A concert in Strasbourg in 1975, almost certainly an amateur recording, shows Gitlis in surprisingly good form for the Bach Chaconne, with little scope for weird on-off vibrato, or exaggerated rubato. A pity about the final unison chord, that does not need vibrato. The acoustic is cavernous, but the Bach work shows off Gitlis's fine technique and lovely violin tone. I enjoyed it. The rest of the recital, with Georges Pludermacher at the piano, suffers badly from the poor acoustic and very bad balance between piano (over-dominant) and violin. Probably a good concert if you were there, but highly forgettable if you were not. Paganini's 24th caprice is given in Leopold Auer's arrangement, with a quite unnecessary piano part.

An excellent off-air recording from 13th June 1972 confirms Gitlis as a first-class player of Paganini. The second concerto, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stanisław Skrowaczewski, is really well worth listening to. Paganini suits extrovert violinists with big egos, and Gitlis is in his element and turns in one of the very best performances of Paganini 2 that I can think of.

I did not bother re-listening to a Vox CD of Berg's violin concerto (recorded 1953), Hindemith's concerto (1962) and Stravinsky's concerto (1955). Life is too short, and time should not be wasted. The twentieth century produced many fine violin concertos. These three were not among them. The respective esteemed conductors were William Strickland, Hubert Reichert, and Harold Byrns.

I never cared much for Gitlis with Martha Argerich in the Franck and Debussy duo sonatas (1977). A bit too much of two prima donnas slogging it out together, and Gitlis does not appear to be at his best. On a Via Classics CD (1968) Gitlis turns in a spirited performance of the Mendelssohn concerto (with the Monte-Carlo orchestra under David Josefowitz). Not great recorded sound (it would appear that Gitlis rarely was given the A team for his recordings) but good enough.

A Philips Duo set of CDs brings a Gitlis cornucopia from the period 1966-69. Paganini's first and second violin concertos, three Paganini caprices arranged for violin and piano (ugh!), the first and second Wieniawski violin concertos, Saint-Saën's second and unfinished fourth concerto. Most of the concertos are with truncated orchestral parts, as was lamentably common in those days. Orchestras for Paganini are Polish, and for Wieniawski, Monte-Carlo. A little illogical, mais c'est comme ça. In the first Paganini concerto, Gitlis is highly virtuosic but so are Kogan, Akiko Suwanai or Nemanja Radulovic, to mention just three. Like many analogue to digital transfers of that era, the treble sound is over-bright and somewhat steely. The 1972 off-air Paganini second concerto sounds better, from a recorded sound point of view. In the Philips transfer, for the cadenza (by Gitlis) in the second concerto, it sounds as if he is playing on a $10 tin violin. Alas, that is how things often were in 1994 (when this transfer was made) with many of the major companies as they scrambled to digitise their backlog of recordings.

On the second of the Philips Duo CDs, the first and last movements of Wieniawski's shamelessly neglected first concerto show Gitlis's virtuosity in full throttle. The work is heavily cut (the first movement is all over in less than ten and a half minutes, as compared with just under 16 minutes for the recording I admired by Soo-Hyun Park). The larghetto is too slow, and suffers from some of Gitlis's “sea-sick” rolling phrasing. I am all for musicians being different, but there is also the phenomenon of being different just for the sake of being different. In Wieniawski's second concerto, Gitlis is his fine virtuoso self in the first movement (again, heavily cut) but the Romance confirms my feeling that I often do not admire Gitlis so much when it comes to slower music. The melody of the Romance is chopped up into bits, with no real legato; if Gitlis were a singer, he would be taking a breath every five seconds. Once the Romance is over, Gitlis comes into his own in the Allegro “alla Zingara” that he zips through in a little over five minutes flat.

Finally, on the Philips Duo CDs, we come to Camille Saint-Saëns, and his neglected second violin concerto. Many violinists play the third, but the second rarely appears; it is a fine work, however, perfectly crafted as one would expect from Saint-Saëns. I used to have this Gitlis recording on LP (where it sounded better than the current digital transfer in the Philips box). The concerto has a lovely slow movement, but I don't like Gitlis playing it for me. Not enough legato, too much on-off vibrato, too much rubato. Give me Fanny Clamagirand in this movement, any day. The duo CDs end with Saint-Saëns' fourth concerto (11 minute fragment thereof, pretty much just the first movement; Saint-Saëns never finished it).

Predictably, Gitlis's 1976 recording of Paganini's 24 Capricci is up there with the best. The fantasy / virtuosity elements of this music suit Gitlis 100 per cent. The CD transfer I have from the original LP tapes (Philips) is not the best; when a Guarneri / Stradivari violin starts to sound cheap, you know that the recording / transfer is not good. However, one to keep and to air often, despite the ferocious competition. I just hope that, one day, someone will make a better digital transfer, although the copyright will not expire until 2026 by which time I may well not be here. I received my copy around ten years ago, from a friend. I gave it three stars, but I do not think I have listened to it since. Mea culpa. It is now fixed firmly in my firmament of really first-class Paganini recordings. Just how I would have liked to play the Paganini Capricci, had I practised the violin just a little more seriously in my youth.

I skip-sampled the Vox concerto recordings from the 1954 to 1957 (Double Vox CD), when Gitlis must have been in his technical prime. There are hundreds of recordings of the Tchaikovsky, Bruch G minor, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and Bartok violin concertos, as there are of Bartok's sonata for solo violin. The conductor for the Bruch, Sibelius and Bartok concertos is no less than Jascha Horenstein, a good stand-by Vox conductor in 1950s Vienna. The transfers are better done than for the double Philips album and, in fact, the sound is perfectly acceptable in this Vox double box. Gitlis's playing reveals a fast vibrato throughout, and the on-off vibrato effect had not yet arrived in his technical repertoire, thank goodness. The six works on the two Vox CDs are given good, solid, classical accounts; I have neglected this box for too long. A “must” for all Gitlis fans, but also excellent performances of the works.

My final conclusion is that Ivry Gitlis deserves his high reputation among lovers of violin playing. I have thinned out my 13 Gitlis CDs, but the ones I am keeping I keep with pleasure and the knowledge that I'll listen to them all again. Gitlis is at his very best when the music is fast; in slow music, his sound and phrasing can be too idiosyncratic; even on the 1950s Vox recordings, his fast, nervous vibrato in the slow movements grates a little. My 13 Gitlis CDs are now down to six, but they are six CDs to which I will listen often.

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