Sibelius, Khachaturian: Violin Concertos. Julian Sitkovetsky, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicolai Anossov, Rumanian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Niyazi (+ Bazzini: Rondo in E minor, Sarasate: Two Spanish Dances op. 21. Bella Davidovich, piano). Monopole MONO 002 (2005), barcode 7011778130021
Recorded 1953, 1954
Major interpretations, worth the splash – but not in these pitiful transfers
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 25 April 2015
I tend to be sceptical about the cult around obscure and forgotten fiddlers, whose icon status seems directly dependent on the unavailability or rarity of their recordings – so that no one can actually check on the hear-say. When finally I get to hear them, I am often disappointed: was that all the splash was about? Not so with Julian Sitkovetzky (as spelled here). On the contrary, based on this CD, with him the hype seems not loud enough.
Julian (or Yulian) Sitkovetzky (more often written Sitkovetsky, but I’ve even seen it spelled Sitkovecky or Sitkoveckij -, the husband of pianist Bella Davidovitch and father of Dimitry Sitkovetsky, was a Russian-Ukrainian virtuoso born in 1925, whose career was tragically cut short when he died of cancer at the age of 33. Monopole’s product info is shamefully wanting – other than a 10-line bio we are just told that the recordings date from 1953 and 1954 (but which we are not told) and the sources are not mentioned. From other releases of the same works it appears that Sibelius is from 1953 and Khachaturian 1954. I’ve reviewed the Khachaturian at length under one of those other releases, by Russian Disc, RD CD 15 0090 (link will open new tab to my review). Note that it is NOT the same performance as the one issued by Artek, volume 5 of their Art of Yulian Sitkovetsky series, AR 0031-2 barcode 661853003121 (link will open new tab to Artek’s relevant page), which is a 1956 live recording conducted by the composer. The Russian Disc/Monopole performance is an interpretation of fabulous drive in the outer movements, and great lyrical intensity in the slow movement. In fact, the reading is very similar to the dedicatee and first performer’s, David Oistrakh: his second studio recording, also made in 1954 with the composer leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in the first two movements (reissued in 1994 in EMI’s Composers in Person series, CDC 5 55035 2, barcode 724355503527) and, in the finale, his live recording with Kubelik at the Prague Festival in 1947 (unfortunately in dismal sound, on Multisonic’s Prague Spring Collection 31 0038-2, barcode 8596931003828), which is even more dashing (in comparison Oistrakh in 1954 sounds gentle and meek). Sitkovetzky’s digital virtuosity in that finale is awesome and, like Oistrakh, his incredible forward drive is never at the expense of tonal control. Worth noting is also the fact that he plays the first movement’s cadenza complete – a decision rarely exercised, then (Oistrakh played his own concoction) and still now. It is a live recording, but other than various stage noises in the middle movement and the applause at the end, one has no clue – and certainly not in any finger slip or imprecision from Sitkovetzky. As for the orchestral support, if I had been told it was Leningrad under Mravinsky, I would have believed it: the Romanian Radio Orchestra under “Niyazi” (never heard of him. No first name? But Wikipedia does have an entry, showing that his complete name was Niyazi Zulfigar ogli Tagizade Hajibeyov – no wonder Monople, and maybe the conductor himself, dropped it) plays with tremendous drive, energy, precision and snap.
However, the horrendously shrill, harsh and cavernous acoustics of the Monopole transfer simply rule it out. The Russian Disc transfer is also harsh, but with none of the cavernous sonic perspective that sabotages the Monopole issue.
Interpretively, the Sibelius’ Violin Concerto belongs to the same league. Although rarely exercised, the coupling of Sibelius’ with Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto seems to me a very appropriate choice stylistically, not only because of the sweeping lyricism shared by both compositions, but more to the point because of the Sibelian echoes in Khachaturian’s finale. Again the source of this recording isn’t indicated by Monopole. It is a studio recording that was first published on Supraphon Mono LPM418, reissued by the same company on CD on “Giants of the Violin”, SU 3005-2 001, barcode 099925300524. I don’t have that specific reissue, nor the one published on Aulos Classics/Melodiya AMC2-054 “The art of Yulian Sitkovetsky Vol. 1”, barcode 889253369337 (there’s a Korean edition, barcode 8809090671266), but, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, I’ve just found (and cheap, too!) a rarity reissue, a 1995 CD published by SYD Records, CYD 006, volume 6 of a series called “The Art of Yulian Sitkovetsky”, which seems to be the source from which Artek licenced their own series – but, God knows why (and lamentably) stopping at volume 5. SYD vol. 6 (my copy bears no barcode but it can be found online under barcode 3576075287020) is invaluable for pairing this Sibelius with the live recording of Sitkovetsky’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto given during the final round of the 1955 Queen Elizabeth Competition in which he got 2nd Prize; a famous anecdote in Sitkovetsky’s bio is that Menuhin and Oistrakh were among the jury, and Menuhin later claimed that Sitkovetsky should have received the first prize. That anecdote is recounted in every biography of Sitkovetsky, but nobody ever says who the hapless prize winner was: it was the American Berl Senovsky. Well… Sitkovetsky, Senovsky… maybe the secretary just made a typo. Anyway: collectors and fans of the violin, start posting permanent searches on eBay.
I’m bringing this up not just to have said collectors salivate in envy, but point out again at the botched transfer of Monopole. The SYD transfer is clearly direct from tape and sounds just fine. Monopole is from LP, with dim surface noise and harsh violin tone and saturation in the climaxes. The unavailability of this recording in a good transfer is to be lamented. As with Khachaturian, it is a performance of great urgency and considerable dramatic impact, one very close to the model established by Heifetz in his premiere recording with Beecham in 1935 (reissued in 1990 on Biddulph LAB 018 barcode 744718001828 and in 1990 on EMI Références CDH 7 64030 2 barcode 077776403021) and reiterated by him in his 1959 stereo remake under Walter Hendl (many reissues on RCA including on SACD, usually paired with Prokofiev’s Second Concerto and Glazunov’s). There is no enjoying the wide and calm Nordic vistas here, the Concerto is taken not as a panorama of haunting and evocative colors (as it has become in the interpretive tradition that developed from the 1960s onwards), but as a vehicle for violent drama (try the “allegro molto” section in the first movement starting at 4:38). Just to give an idea, Heifetz in 1935 took the first movement in 14:08, he was even faster in 1959 and established something of a record at 13:32. Sitkovetsky runs close second at 13:42 (but without the sense of rush sometimes elicited by Heifetz). Hilary Hahn, the most recent recording to have come my way, takes it in 17:10 (DG 477 7346 barcode 028947773467, paired with Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto). In the finale, Sitkovetzky is even FASTER than Heifetz in 1959 by four seconds – a feat I thought I’d never encounter – but he also has great rhythmic bounce, and although his double-stop scales followed by octave leaps are not entirely in-sync with the orchestra (and until Hahn, positively nobody’s were, even Heifetz sounded scrambled here), his harmonic “whistling” at 4:28 is more assured than Heifetz’, and perfect, really. Anossov conducts a powerful and urgent orchestral support (Czech Philharmonic).
If I had one (small) reservation, it is that, for all his fiery approach and incredible digital virtuosity, Sitkovetzky lacks perhaps the ultimate degree of expression, one that both Heifetz and Camilla Wicks (Biddulph 80218-2 with the superb violin concerto of Farten Valen, barcode 744718021826), in two widely contrasted approaches from those days, had in loads. Nonetheless this is, to me, one of the great recordings of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, still today.
The three encores with wife Bella Davidovitch and much better sound (source unknown) are not enough ground to purchase this disc, except maybe as a stopgap (even botched sound is better than nothing for interpretations of such magnitude), until you can find the Russian Disc for Khachaturian and any of the three indicated above for the Sibelius.