Glazunov, Khachaturian: Violin Concertos. Julian Sitkovetsky, Moscow Youth Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, Romanian Radio Orchestra, Niyazi. Russian Disc RD CD 15 009 (1994), barcode 748871500921
Recorded 1952 and 1954
Major violinist – Sitkovetsky’s death at 33 was a tragic loss for music
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 29 January 2012
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 Sitkovetsky. On the contrary, based on this CD and his Sibelius Violin Concerto (which I have both on a Monopole release paired with the same Khachaturian as here, MONO 002 barcode 7011778130021, and on a rarity reissue, a 1995 CD published by SYD Records, CYD 006, volume 6 of a series called “The Art of Yulian Sitkovetsky”, 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 – my copy bears no barcode but it can be found online under barcode 3576075287020), with him the hype appears to be not loud enough.
Julian (or Yulian) Sitkovetsky (I’ve even seen it spelled SitkovetZky, 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 32. In Khachaturian, recorded in 1954, he offers 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: more specifically, to 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 (on Multisonic’s Prague Spring Collection, unfortunately in dismal sound, Multisonic 31 0038-2, barcode 8596931003828), which is jaw-droppingly dashing (in comparison – but only in comparison – Oistrakh in 1954 sounds gentle and meek). Sitkovetsky’s digital virtuosity in that finale is awesome and, like Oistrakh in 1947, his incredible forward drive is never at the expense of tonal control. Fiddlers, listen, and sweat (and for once, pianists, you will too). Not that Sitkovetsky lacks lyricism even in those fast, outer movements, but in a Heifetz manner his lyricism is all the more searing that it unfolds in a tempo that never lingers. The approach brings the music an epic sweep that makes all the others sound overly sentimental in comparison. Worth noting is also the fact that Sitkovetsky plays the first movement’s cadenza complete – a decision rarely exercised, then (Oistrakh played his own concoction) and still now. If I had been told that the orchestra was Leningrad under Mravinsky, I would have believed it: the Romanian Radio Orchestra under “Niyazi” plays with tremendous drive, energy, precision and snap. Never heard of this “Niyazi” before. No first name? But Wikipedia does have an entry, showing that his complete name was Niyazi Zulfigar ogli Tagizade Hajibeyov – no wonder Russian Disc dropped it! Well, if I learned it was all a hoax and it WAS actually Mravinsky and Leningrad, I wouldn’t be surprised. Khachaturian’s orchestration is slightly doctored in the middle movement: at 9:22, a oboe plays a little motif that the score attributes to the violas. This 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 from any finger slip or imprecision from Sitkovetzky. A fair amount of orchestral details comes through, although some others have to be imagined rather than being actually heard – quite unfortunate especially in the finale, where the Sibelian echoes are almost entirely lost. The sound is somewhat harsh, but incomparably better than the horrendously cavernous and shrill acoustics of the Monopole CD. There is a two-second drop-out in one chanel at 4:35 into the finale, but as it is also on Monopole issue it must come from the source and not the transfer. Fans of Khachaturian’s Concerto, take note: this is one of the greatest interpretations ever recorded. And for the Sibelius Concerto, try and find that SYD CD, or the reissues by Supraphon, “Giants of the Violin”, SU 3005-2 001, barcode 099925300524, or by Aulos Classics/Melodiya AMC2-054 “The art of Yulian Sitkovetsky Vol. 1”, barcode 889253369337 (there’s a Korean edition, barcode 8809090671266), or Pristine Classical PASC290 – I haven’t heard them, but no doubt they will be better than Monopole).
The Monopole CD is ruled out by its horrible sound but Sibelius in my opinion makes a much better pairing than Glazunov’s salon music over-inflated to the size of a Concerto. Yet, any recording by Sitkovetsky is significant. This one was recorded in 1952 with the Moscow Youth Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin. Sitkovetsky’s approach his somewhat surprising in the light of his dashing Khachaturian, but then, there must have been a Soviet tradition, because Oistrakh did it the same way in his own studio recording from 1948 (also with Kondrashin – I have it on DG’s reissue, “Concertos & Encores”, barcode 028947774792): markedly more expansive than the scores’ metronome marks, lingering even at times. I’m not convinced it does the Concerto much good: it tends to sentimentalise it and “salonize” it, and the piece has enough of the salon-sentimental as it is. Heifetz’ stricter approach (from 3 & 4 June 1963, with Walter Hendl conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, many reissues on RCA) is not only truer to the composer’s tempos, it is also, in my opinion, much more effective, and with no loss of lyricism. That said, Sitkovetsky plays with great bow tension, power of delivery and fabulous purity of tone, and total digital ease. The recording shows no trace of surface noise, and is in fact preferable to Oistrakh’s version, on account of its comparatively much better sonics and slightly less lingering approach.
Hearing these recordings as well as Sitkovetsky’s Sibelius, I am left with no doubt that, had he lived, he would have been viewed, indeed, as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th Century, an equal to Oistrakh. A tragic loss for music.
[Addendum February 2023] Note that since I posted this review, like the famous cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest or the hermit crab that inhabits the abandoned shells of other creatures, another disc by another label, but bearing the same barcode as this one, 748871500921, has supplanted it only many online websites. Normally, barcodes are made to prevent this: they should not be duplicated. Unfortunate exceptions happen. The problem with that is that, since sellers list their CD by scanning the barcode, you may think they were selling that Somm CD when in fact it’s the much-wanted Sitkovetsky that’s on sale… or the other around. So before committing to buy, enquire.
Note also that in 2006 the label Artek released what appears to be another performance of Khachaturian’s Concerto, this one conducted by the conductor, vol. 5 of their Julian Sitkovetsky series, paired with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 under Alexander Gauk (AR 0031-2 barcode 661853003121, link to the label’s page), and what seems to be the same version of the Glazunov (paired with the rare Violin Concertos of Sergei Lyapunov and Albert Lehman), vol. 3, AR 0028-2 barcode 661853002827.