"Stern chez Mozart"
This was how the French music critic Clarendon – the pen name of Bernard Gavoty – deaded his review in Le Figaro on 30 January 1973. The previous evening, Isaac Stern had perfomed two of Mozart's violin concertos with the Orchestre de Chambre de l'ORTF under the direction of Alexander Schneider. The concert was part of a larger project devised by Pierre Vozlinsky for French television and intended to capture all Mozart's great concertos on film. In order to showcase the event and ensure that it was adequately prepared, each recording in the Buttes-Chaumont studios was preceded by a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
To ensure that the operation was a success, top-flight soloists were needed, together with a conductor capable of rousing the Orchestre de Chambre de l'ORTF from its habitual lethargy. Vozlinsky thought that Alexander Schneider was the man for the job.
Schneider had for many years been second violinist in the Budapest Quartet and had formed numerous ensembles, engaging quality orchestras for the great cellist Pablo Casals, first at Prades and later in Porto Rico. He was also one of the pilliars of the Marlboro Music School and Festival and was passionately drawn to the Classical repertoire. The enthusiasm and charisma of "Sasha," as everyone called him, certainly worked wonders, and the Orchestre de Chambre de l'ORTF seemed transformed.
But listeners will also be struck by the way in which Schneider and Stern are seen working together. Close friends and colleagues for almost forty years, the two men first met in 1935, when Stern came to hear the Budapest Quartet perform all the Beethoven and Bartok quartets at Mills College in California. Stern was then fifteen and was amazed at the perfection of their playing and the intensity of their commitment.
Sasha was also instrumental in setting up an even more decisive meeting, this time with Pablo Casals, whom he persuaded to emerge from retirement to mark the bicentenary of Bach's death by playing and conducting at the Prades Festival in 1950. Casals asked him to invite two young musicians to play with him, and Sasha chose Eugene Istomin and Isaac Stern. The young violinist felt that Casals was opening the gates of an exquisite garden whose existence he had suspected but which had remained hidden behind a high wall.
"Freedom, freedom, but with order." Casals' motto and, even more, his way of putting it into practice were a revelation for Stern, something of which he was conscious from their very first meeting, which took the form of a rehearsal of Bach's Double Violin Concerto with Casals at the piano and Schneider as the second violinist: "That was a most important moment of my life, because, though I had confidence in my talent, my instincts, and my vision, I now had my basic musical approach confirmed in a fundamental way by this first encounter with Casal's mind and spirit."
In his review, Clarendon imagined Stern saying to himself in the middle of the Adagio from Mozart's Vion Concerto No. 3: "How beautiful it is! I have played this concerto in every part of the world, but I feel that I am discovering it for the first time this evening." This was the concerto that Stern played most often. It was also the first that he recorded, in March 1950, with a small chamber orchetra assembled specially for the occasion. However much pleasure it gave him, he generally refused to take on the double role of soloist and conductor, as he believed that there was nothing more stimulating for a soloist that for a conductor capable of sudden inspiration to bring his own ideas to the piece.
He went on to record Mozart's concertos with George Szell and Alexander Schneider. Widely regarded as one of the greatest Mozartians of his century, Stern interpreted the works in a way that made them seem the very image of their exponent. They speak to us directly, in an infinitely persuasive tone. They do not strive to be original but give us a feeling of truth, of somehting entirely self-evident. And although they eschew sentimentality, their slow movements often move us to tears. Clarendon was right: Stern was completely at home in Mozart.
Whenever interviewers asked Schneider to name his favourite living violinist, he would hasten to acknowledge the ourstanding merits of all other violinists before replying "Isaac Stern." And he would then add: "No one else has such a capacity for emotion, with warmly expressive phrasing that comes straight from the depths of his soul and strikes the listener directly by dint of its beauty." Conversely, Schneider never hesitated to reproach Stern with typical frankness and brusqueness for something that many others would not have dared to say openly: a failure to be sufficiently concentrated on the music and on his violin.
Stern threw himslef into countless activities, notably in the political sphere, giving his time and energy without counting the cost and seeking to take advantage of life in all his forms. He would sometimes arrive badly prepared for a concert, not least because he always had thirty or so concertos in his repertoire. He also had serious heart problems in 1968, leading to a gradual loss of technique. Even his recordings of the Mozart concertos included in the present release contain imperfections. He himself used to say: "Don't make yourself ill over the notes you've missed, it's those you got right that matters."
All of Stern's concerts contained moments of magic that remain lodged in the memory and that allow us to overlook the less successful ones. Even during his youth, Stern was never interested in pure virtuosity nor in the narcissism of a beautiful tone. Here we can admire the economy of his vibrato, which is never used to seduce us with artificial brilliance but which is placed in the service of expression. This was one of the great lessons that he learnt from Casals: to be capable of adapting the speed and breadth of his vibrato to the demands of the music.
The 1965 concert allows us to appreciate the fabulous violinist that Stern could be, his authority and the richness of his playing both proving altogether overwhelming. It is fascinating to see him play Bach like this, not least because he never consented to record Bach's works for solo violin. At Prades in 1950, he played the Sonata in G Minor and the Partita in D Minor, later contenting himself with a handful of individual movements in his recital programmes.
By the end he would play even these movements only in exceptional circumstances, as on the death of Kennedy and at the time of the Gulf War. When people expressed their astonishment at this, he would reply that he regarded this music as a prayer that he wanted to keep for hmslf whenever he was overcome by feelings of doubt or sadness.
The 3 Mozart performances have been recorded in Paris on 29 January 1973. The other pieces are excerpts from a performance at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, 1 April 1965.
Opening concert of the 2006–2007 season at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra
Philarmonia Orchestra, Norman del Mar (conductor) - Ernest Lush (piano) - Georges Pludermacher (piano)
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Verbier Festival 2007