Sitkovetsky joins top Sibelius interpreters Violinist: The late, little-known Russian demonstrates his mastery in a newly available recording. Also acquitting themselves well are Leila Josefowicz and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Classical Sounds

August 18, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Sibelius, Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto, performed by Leila Josefowicz and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner conducting (Philips 446 131)

Sibelius, Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, performed by Vadim Repin and the London Symphony Orchestra, Emmanuel Krivine conducting (Erato 4509-98537); Sibelius Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 2, performed by Vladimir Spivakov (in the concerto) and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov conducting (BMG Classics 09026-61701)

Sibelius Violin Concerto, Serenades Nos. 1 and 2 and Humoresque No. 1, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the (( Dresden State Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 447 895)

Sibelius, Violin Concerto, Beethoven, Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, performed by Julian Sitkovetsky (Sibelius), David Oistrakh (Beethoven) and Leonid Kogan and the Czech Philharmonic (Sibelius and Beethoven) and the Moscow Philharmonic (in the Shostakovich), Nikolai Anosov (Sibelius), Karel Ancerl (Beethoven) and Kirill Kondrashin (Shostakovich) conducting (Supraphon Records 3005-2 001):

Few of the great 20th century violin concertos had so hard a birth as that by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).

When it was first performed by Karl Halir, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, under the baton of Richard Strauss in 1905, most of the world's great violinists turned up their noses. Joseph Joachim called it "abominable and boring"; Eugene Ysaye tried it out and put it aside; and Leopold Auer was preoccupied with the new Glazunov Concerto. Franz von Vecsey, who first performed it as a 17-year-old in 1910, helped its cause, but the Sibelius had to wait two decades until Jascha Heifetz popularized it.

As these new recordings demonstrate, the Sibelius now has a popularity that puts it almost in the same league as the Tchaikovsky or the Bruch. One of these newly issued performances of the Sibelius concerto deserves a place alongside the classic performances of Heifetz and Oistrakh, heretofore considered the work's two finest interpreters, and it's by the violinist whose name is the least likely to be recognized by most readers.

That would be Julian Sitkovetsky, whose death from lung cancer at age 33 in 1958 is the reason most music lovers in the West have never heard of him. (If his name does sound familiar, it may be because his son, Dmitri, is one of the best violinists of his generation.) Like his much better-known contemporary Leonid Kogan, Julian Sitkovetsky studied in Moscow with the great Abram Yampolsky. And although he developed a little later than Kogan and was much less favored by the Soviet concert bureaucracy, most Russian musicians -- including David Oistrakh himself -- considered Sitkovetsky by far the bigger talent.

His hard-to-find recordings -- and his Sibelius is one of the finest -- -- prove the point. This performance, recorded in 1953, just before Sitkovetsky became ill, has an emotional richness comparable to Oistrakh at his best and an extroverted brilliance -- particularly in a thrilling account of the finale -- that equals that of Heifetz. Along with the consummate technique and artistry, there is also a gloriously personal sonority -- velvet in the instrument's low register, pure gold in the middle, silver at the top -- that stamps this short-lived violinist as one of the century's greatest fiddlers. Sitkovetsky's Sibelius is accompanied by Oistrakh's relaxed and intimate performance of a Beethoven Romance and by Kogan's splendidly nasty account of the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1.

Spivakov: tepid

Vladimir Spivakov, 52, now spends as much (or more) time with (( the baton as with the bow and, unfortunately, his playing -- once so assured -- shows it. Next to Sitkovetsky's, Spivakov's tepid, technically somewhat uneasy and small-boned interpretation of the Sibelius fades into insignificance. The disc is filled out by Yuri Temirkanov's disappointing reading of the composer's Symphony No. 2.

Repin: without bite

The playing of the Soviet-trained Vadim Repin, 24, recalls that of Spivakov at his best: It is cultivated, sensitive and has a certain amount of virtuoso flair. But, like those of Spivakov even when the latter was younger, Repin's performances lack the bite necessary for big pieces such as the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos. Although the slow movements in both pieces are sung with warmth and simplicity, the outer ones are too withdrawn to be successful.

Josefowicz: intense

An even younger violinist, the 18-year-old Canadian Leila Josefowicz, provides much more satisfying accounts of the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Her performances, expertly accompanied by Neville Marriner, are characterized by abundant temperament, spontaneity, intensity and intriguingly supple phrasing. She is not yet "inside" either piece in the way that Cho-Liang Lin, for example, was at a comparably young age, but it will be fascinating to watch her develop.

Mutter: inside

A violinist who is completely inside the Sibelius concerto and makes it very much her own is Anne-Sophie Mutter. This former prodigy, now 34, plays the piece with extraordinary focus and concentration. She is clearly less interested in Sibelius' high-wire acts -- though Mutter is second to none in dispatching its wide leaps and rapid double stops and scales in thirds -- than in its late-Romantic sumptuousness and grandeur. She performs with a flexibility of rubato -- a pushing or dragging against the beat for expressive effect -- and with occasional gypsy-like slides that have outraged some critics on the other side of the Atlantic. But her appropriation of the freedom, which an earlier generation of violinists automatically accorded themselves, is filled with burning conviction that makes this piece sound as fresh as if the ink from the composer's pen were still wet on the page.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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