Ivry Gitlis was born to a Jewish Ukrainian family in former Palestine; this mixed heritage seems to have given him something of an international outlook that was perpetuated by contact with teachers from a variety of schools of violin playing. His first lessons were from Mira Ben-Ami, a Szigeti pupil; then Huberman, having heard Ivry’s first public concert, offered financial support for him to go to Paris where he entered the École Normale de Musique to study with Jules Boucherit and Marcel Chailley. Taking a premier prix after two years there, Gitlis then went to Flesch in Belgium to develop his technique, and then to Enescu whom he considered a ‘musical god’. Next he studied with Thibaud, who influenced him greatly in terms of producing a natural cantabile style. His last teacher was Theodore Pashkus, from whom Gitlis learnt a more cerebral, analytical approach.
It was a tour of the USA in 1955 that cemented Gitlis’s reputation as a solo concert and recording artist. His repertoire is wide-ranging, with something of a leaning towards twentieth-century music, although he has also recorded standard Romantic repertoire in considerable quantity. His Bruch G minor and Sibelius Concertos, recorded in the mid-1950s under Jascha Horenstein, are distinguished interpretations. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra (especially winds) sounds rather rustic, but this imbues the works with a raw sound that suits them well, particularly the Sibelius. Gitlis’s playing is characterised by a powerful vibrato which is fast and intense, albeit perhaps too trembling in nature on occasion. He uses a fair number of portamenti in these performances and some of the descending ones (especially in the Bruch slow movement) closely resemble the peculiar type used by Menuhin—a form of incremental, almost chromatic descent at the start of the slide, followed by a more conventional smooth glide to the bottom. Of particular note are the extraordinarily still and distant coda to the Bruch slow movement, and the raw energy and tonal simplicity of the Sibelius first movement. The Bruch is rather saccharine in places, but the slightly chaotic ensemble in its finale at least guarantees a sense of drama and excitement!
Gitlis’s finest recording, in my view, is his 1954 Bartók Solo Sonata—very much deserving of the high praise it received as possibly the work’s greatest recording (and indeed its award of Best Disc of the Year from the New York Herald Tribune). Gitlis’s energy, intellectual rigour and tonal transparency, always intensely delivered, are extraordinary. Recorded in a much more resonant acoustic than most of his recordings, it sounds immediately more fresh and contemporary. His grasp of Bartók’s very difficult extended techniques is masterful.
It is a shame that Gitlis is not a better-known violinist. His pedigree and extraordinary talents—which, in an age increasingly tending towards stylistic consensus, mark him out as distinctive—deserve much greater exposure.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist