Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years
Sony Classical SMK 89049
This CD is intended to accompany Isaac Stern's memoir, My First 79 Years, written with author Chaim Potok, though whether it is meant as a set of musical illustrations or as a sort of parallel sonic memoir I'm not sure. Whatever the intention, it features Stern as soloist or ensemble player in twelve short selections from the standard solo and chamber repertoires, all recorded on Columbia (now Sony) over a period of 51 years, and affording plenty of opportunity to sample his beautifully controlled but highly expressive playing.
The quality of Stern's playing is impressive, and the roll call of his collaborators on this disk - many of them his pupils and/or protégés - is equally so. We have Casals, Hess, Ormandy, Bernstein, Rose, Oistrakh, Istomin, Rostropovich, Rampal, Zuckerman - the list is too long to continue. As one might expect, the playing sparkles throughout, though the sound is sometimes a bit dated. Inevitably, some of the tracks have something less than first-rate modern sound reproduction, since some of Stern's earliest performances are represented here; the Allegro con brio movement from Beethoven's Violin Sonata op.30, no. 2, for instance, is from Stern's very first recording for Columbia, dating all the way back to 1945. The engineers, however, have done their work, and all the tracks are free of noise and highly listenable.
This is a sampler, and, as such, consists entirely of excerpts and short pieces; it therefore does not provide the most satisfactory listening experience. (The excerpts, it should be noted, are all complete movements rather than "selected great moments".) Although it may be annoying to hear only a single movement of some favorite piece, two of the functions of a sampler are, after all, to enable you to experience as many different aspects as possible of the artist's professional output, and to help you to form some idea of which performances you might like to try to acquire in their entirety (as well as which ones you might wish to avoid for eternity, such as, perhaps, Arthur Harris' extra-treacly arrangement of Dvorak's Humoresque on band 5). There is a 25-entry discography of Stern's work included in the notes.
Another excellent reason for the existence of a collection such as this is that it serves to remind us of (or to introduce us to) some of the wonderful performances and performers of the past, too often forgotten amidst the flash and dazzle of present-day technical virtuosity and recording technology.
In the end, however, regardless of how you will use it, this disk stands as a testament to the talent and musical energy of one of the great violinists of the twentieth century.
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