For more than 15 years, Isaac Stern has appeared to music lovers less like a great violinist and more like, to quote William Butler Yeats, "a sixty-year-old smiling public man."
This is scarcely surprising. In the years since 1960, Stern -- who celebrated his 75th birthday last year -- has saved Carnegie Hall, contributed mightily to the fight for racial equality, helped create the National Endowment for the Arts, raised millions of dollars for the state of Israel, starred in an Academy Award-winnning documentary ("From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China") and served (as he continues to do) as a mentor to important young artists from Itzhak Perlman to Sarah Chang. It's little wonder that music lovers sometimes forget that he was a violinist. Or, for that matter, that Stern, as he approached the age of 60, began to let his playing fray around the edges; he had more important things to do than practice -- he had to save the world.
Nevertheless, a series of reissues from Sony Classical, "Isaac Stern, A Life in Music," makes clear indeed what a great violinist Stern was. This series -- now 32 volumes long and still growing -- represents Sony's attempt to do for Stern what RCA Victor did for Heifetz in its monumental Heifetz collection.
The two violinists really cannot be compared -- for Heifetz, as Stern himself always insisted, was incomparable. But this remarkable collection suggests that Stern may have been the most versatile violinist of modern times.
There is, for example, his championship of chamber music. Stern was the first star violinist to put aside celebrity in order to make chamber music seriously. The recordings he made with the trio he formed in 1960 with his friends pianist Eugene Istomin and cellist Leonard Rose are virile and exuberant. No better performances of the trio literature -- whether Schubert (SM2K 64516), Brahms (SM3K 64520), or Mendelssohn (SMK 64519) -- exist, and re-hearing the Istomin-Stern-Rose performances of the Beethoven trios (SM2K 64510 and SM2K 64513) confirms their position as the finest ever.
But these performances (like more recent ones of chamber music with younger partners such as Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Jaime Laredo) have never been out of print. What is most impressive in Sony's Stern celebration are the return of some extraordinary old friends that have been missing for years. There are Stern's 1960 recordings, for example, of the three Brahms sonatas for violin and piano (SMK 64531), which he recorded with his longtime friend and accompanist, the fine pianist, Alexander Zakin. Stern re-recorded these works in 1991 with Yefim Bronfman, but it is the earlier recording that lets us hear Stern as he should be remembered: His total involvement in the music is communicated with selfless intensity and with a virtuoso's command of the instrument.
These long absent, reissued recordings include performances of major works by Prokofiev (SMK 64534), Hindemith, Copland and Bloch (SMK 64533), and Bartok and Webern (SMK 64535), and remind us that 20th-century music had an ardent champion in Stern. It was for this violinist, after all, that Leonard Bernstein wrote his "Serenade" (1954), and for whom Krzysztof Penderecki (1976), George Rochberg (1977) and Henri Dutilleux (1985) made their important contributions to the concerto literature.
Moreover, unlike his epigone, Itzhak Perlman, Stern did not merely pay lip service to new music. His performances suggest that he played only what he deeply believed in. In anything Isaac Stern played -- at least in the great days documented by these recordings -- it was next to impossible to detect a diffident note.
Pub Date: 4/21/96