BERG: Violin Concerto; BARTOK: Rhapsody No. 2; Violin Concerto (No. 2) – Isaac Stern, v./ New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein – Praga

by | Oct 22, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BERG: Violin Concerto; BARTOK: Rhapsody No. 2, Sz.80; Violin Concerto (No. 2), Sz.112 – Isaac Stern, violin/ New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein – Praga stereo-only SACD DSD 350 099, 73:16 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Boy is this problematic; I am shocked to see this recording available in an SACD format from, of all places, the fine Praga label. Briefly, I’m not sure if these readings from this disc should even be available on these shores. The performances are not exactly specified except to say that they are taken from “live broadcast sources”, but at least one of them, the Bartok Concerto No. 2, is listed according to an old Columbia Masterworks catalog number, though recording dates for all three works are listed, and I can’t confirm whether these are the same recordings already released on CD by Sony or not. An inquiry with Praga was only partially illuminating, informing me that these readings were indeed in the public domain over there, but I am not sure about here; and to complicate matters they are said to be taken from “full four-channel film master tape”, a “transitory ‘quadraphonic’ edition available in 1978”—which I didn’t know even existed, at least not of these particular works. I don’t know if this mystery will be solved or not, but they appear to be the then-Columbia releases remastered into two-channel SACD.

And I must say they are spectacular. While there does appear to be some spatial differentiation between the violin and orchestra, the violin spotlighted the way that some of the old Columbia LPs did, a process of integration has obviously been applied to lessen the more egregious effects of this practice, and the clarity is astonishing. Bernstein had the NY Phil cooking at this point, and he loved these works, while Stern was probably never to play better than he was at that point in time. The Berg especially is radiant, emotional, and utterly devastating in its portrayal of the death of young Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma (Mahler), Stern on top of the delicacies of the work while Bernstein delineates the many strands of Berg’s counterpoint with surgical precision.

Bartok is different; the Rhapsody is a free-for-all entirely right up Stern’s alley, and he plays it with a lot of gusto. The Concerto, the more popular of the two (the First was written and withdrawn, not to surface until 1958 after the composer’s death) is brilliantly played, though Stern smooths over some of the more dissonant and atonal aspects of the score. I still love it, though I might be forgiven if I prefer the Kyung-Wha Chung recording with Rattle (EMI). But the sound is terrific, and whatever the origins of this particular remastering, I’m not giving it up!

—Steven Ritter

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