Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Ivry Gitlis
Great violinists come in two forms: stars and legends. Think about it. Jascha Heifetz was a star, Nathan Milstein a legend. One was a household name, the other inspired a kind of spiritual reverence among musicians of all stripes, not just violinists.
Fritz Kreisler was a star, Jacques Thibaud a legend. The late Yehudi Menuhin was a star, as was Isaac Stern.
Ivry Gitlis, their close contemporary, lives on – and he’s a legend. A child prodigy from the port town of Haifa, Ivry came to London before the Second World War to study with Carl Flesch. Turned down by big agents, he settled in Paris and performed extensively without ever earning world fame. Among artists, however, he became a magnet – both for his unique musicianship and for a repository of human wisdom that cannot be replicated.
Today, Ivry carries the violin at all times but no longer plays. To sit with him is to share the secrets of music that can only be transmitted by a legend who received them intuitively, in another century. Ivry, at 92, is one of the last of the living legends.
In this compilation from the archives of Southwest German Radio, he plays like no-one else before or since. A 1972 Paganini concerto performance strays sometimes too close to the edge of the notes, but the D minor Brahms sonata exudes a warmth and wit that sound incontestably authentic. The opening phrases of the Debussy G-minor sonata tell you, in this reading, that the composer is about to die before he knows it himself. Ernst Bloch’s Nigun, a 1986 recording, is dark with post-Holocaust shadows.
The twin peaks – for which you will rush out to buy this album and thank me ever after – are the little-played Hindemith concerto of 1939 and the more familiar Bartok second concerto. In Hindemith, often dismissed as dry and uninspired, Ivry finds fluidity and fun, along with a nonchalant serenity that makes the piece feel all too short. In the Bartok, pathos is held in check as the soloist gives the impression that the concerto was written for him, and him alone, to play.
This is commanding artistry, not the kind that necessarily brings a crowd to its feet at the end of a performance but the kind that knows exactly why music exists and what it can do to our deepest seats of emotion. If you’ve never heard Ivry Gitlis before, you will not have glimpsed that secret in the raw.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.