Friday, October 1, 2010

Isaac Stern almost drove me crazy

Seventeen years ago, I bought a cassette tape of Brahms's Violin Concerto. Isaac Stern on violin, with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia.

It nearly drove me nuts. Stern's scratchy, desperate playing sounded like something issuing from the depths of an insane asylum. I was mesmerized. Could not stop listening. Maybe it was the beauty of the orchestra around the soloist, or maybe it was the innate marvelousness of Brahms's creation -- something kept me listening to this over and over and over.

Mr. Stern was not a bad violinist. I knew that. I had heard wonderful stuff from him in chamber pieces. This was such a puzzle. Had Brahms actually written such impossible notes for the soloist? Stern's playing did not seem to me an artistic expression. It struck me as the string-shrieking, ear-wincing output of someone who had picked up the violin for the first time. And struggling through the score as best they could.

What the hell?

So imagine my epiphany a couple years later. When I heard Heifetz's recording with the Chicago Symphony under Reiner! Heifetz, the master tonalist, does not saw the score into note-shreds. Each difficult double-stop and transition is handled with such aplomb that the concerto seems almost a different composition.

Looking back, I am grateful to Mr Stern. His playing in that work riveted me to the spot. I could not let it go. I had to figure out some way of making sense of what I was hearing. Through those long wincing sessions, the latent spirit of Brahms's miraculous concerto worked its way deep into the cracks of my brain.

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