Isaac Stern was many things. Also a great violinist?

Isaac Stern was many things. Also a great violinist?


norman lebrecht

June 21, 2020

From my Wall Street Journal review this weekend of a centennial Isaac Stern biography:

The jury’s still out on Isaac Stern. America’s highest paid violinist and politically the most powerful during his lifetime, Stern (who died in 2001, at age 81) is credited with saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball and being the first American musician to tour in China. As reward for his efforts, he got his name up in perpetuity on Carnegie’s main auditorium and an international violin competition in Shanghai.
The memory of a great violinist tends to fade in a generation. Yet Stern’s footprint in history just seems to grow and grow, without anyone being prepared to swear that he belongs among the greats. The competition in his time was, let me remind you, tough. Jascha Heifetz, Stern once said, played 10% better than anyone else;  Nathan Milstein was twice as elegant, Yehudi Menuhin a pained wearer of the world’s woes, David Oistrakh impeccable, Ida Haendel irresistible, Ivry Gitlis more Jewish—and violinists in those days were all Jewish. Yet Stern, alone among them, has his name on the hall of eternal fame, his plaque almost as big as Andrew Carnegie’s….
Read on here.


  • Player says:

    While not a nice man, I daresay Stern’s legacy is not tainted with actual blood, like that of Andrew Carnegie, despite the plaques that honor him. Yo Yo Ma once claimed Stern was the musician he enjoyed working with most. When asked why, he said that Stern had more commitment than any other artist. I can hear that commitment in his recordings, and I forgive the problems of sound and pitch when I’m in the mood to hear Stern. His Barber Concerto is great.

  • Fiddlist says:

    Symphonie Espagnole, 4th mvt. Brahms Sonata – any of them. Listen! The intense and intensely sincere music-making. No need to question this.

    Also, I’ve never heard a single Oistrakh recording that was impeccable. He’s my favourite violinist ever, but it’s never impeccable, which is part of what makes it so great.

  • Anon says:

    Of course he was a great violinist and great musician.
    One of the best ever.

  • Music Biz Insider says:

    His earliest recordings are superb, but those of us who suffered through his shamelessly sub-par performances from the 1970’s onwards could hardly believe it was the same person. I recall a perfectly wretched Beethoven Concerto at Carnegie Hall circa 1986 (I believe with the Cleveland Orchestra), throughout which he postured pompously as though he was speaking the word of God, and of course the audience fawned over him as though he was God – it was truly a case of the emperor’s clothes. He hadn’t practiced in years – he was too busy running the Kosher Nostra, inserting himself in Israeli politics, and paving his way to heroic immortality. Certainly he helped to foster some artists careers, but he also hurt others. He manipulated Carnegie Hall to his advantage, and when Sol Hurok died, he built ICM artists on the ashes of what had been the Hurok office, and installed his secretary Lee Lamont as president – so that she could push his agenda (she had absolutely no competence in musical or artistic matters). Music wasn’t Stern’s love – it was POWER, period.

    • The worst part about his ‘legacy’ is it allows the false immortality of a sub par violinist who sat on the throne based on his political contacts. Stern has maybe 3 or 4 decent recordings. All of them from the first decade of his career. The later recordings are intolerable, with bad intonation, average musical ideas, scratchy tone, and a total stagnation. In any case, even based on his early recording we are not talking about so e genius here. If I am not mistaken, the early reviews of his playing where not very promising. The guy knew how to befriend people in high places, and exert control.

    • Nick2 says:

      After persuading ICM to start up ICM Artists, it was Sheldon Gold who was installed as the President. Lee Lamont was in charge of soloists. It was only after Shelly’s untimely death about 9 years later that there was a battle for the post between Ms. Lamont and Marvin Schofer who looked after the conductors’ list. With the backing of Stern, Lamont was bound to win out – and did. Prior to then, Gold who had worked with Hurok had a powerful and dominant presence. Visiting the ICM Artists office, it was very clear he was in charge, although presumably he was close to Stern.

    • John Marks says:

      It’s a real shame that Stern did not live into the era of “#metoo.”

      I was told by a professional musician who had, as a student, attended a summer music festival where Stern was among the faculty, that Stern was regarded as a proponent of the “A lay for an ‘A’ ” school of pedagogy.

      Yeah yeah yeah, he’s not around to defend himself.

      But that does not (and it should not) seem to apply when the Sex-Abusing Perpetrator being called out was a Catholic priest.

      I met him once. The one-word take-away was “haughty.”

      My usual reaction to his recordings was that he played like a very self-indulgent person who lacked the necessary degree of humility to create a deep spiritual impact (such as one would have with Bach by Grumiaux or Szigeti).

      I just gave a quick listen to the beginning of Stern’s 1970 Sibelius with Ormandy. I had to turn it off after about one minute. IMHO Stern constantly jumps in with his phrases, needing to get the first word in ahead of the orchestra.

      It’s exasperating the way it is in real life, when someone can’t let you finish your sentence before he begins his reply.

      Oh well, lots of violinists built their careers on the fact that many audience members listen with their eyes instead of their ears.

      But only one that I know of spent his career trying to destroy the careers of other violinists, apparently often on the basis of ugly ethnocentricity.

      • fflambeau says:

        I also met Stern once. Haughty would be the farthest from the truth of that meeting; humble but exuberant is more like it.

  • Music lover says:

    The article appears to be behind a paywall.

  • Isaac was great at scratching at the violin. I am not sure he ever got the memo that it’s a lyrical instrument.

    • Enquiring Mind says:

      Listen to his Bach A min video on youtube. Its quite lyrical with a very sweet sound.

      • I know virtually all of his recordings, having been a former musician, and studying his work for years. My personal favorite recordings of Stern are:

        Live performances of Vieuxtemps Concerto no.4 with piano (possibly one top 3 best recordings of this work), this was performed in France, in the first decade of his career.

        In the same performance his Kreisler/Paganini La Companella was also amazing.

        Also I really like his Zingerweisen, Wieniawski Concerto no. 2, Saint-Saens Intro and Rondo Cappriciouso.

        I can’t listen to his: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Barber, Sibelius, or Tchaikovsky because of the intonation. Also, I don’t think his chops in these pieces really were at the top, frankly.

        Also, really dislike his classical and Baroque interpretations (Bach sonatas for example), which were either Hefetz-esque, rough, or just not in style.

  • Edgar Self says:

    And Mischa Elman, Toscha Seidel, zZubermann, Tossy Spivakovsky, Schneiderhan, Kulenkampf, Vasa Prihoda, Ricci, Thibaud, Telmanyi, Szigmondy, Neveu, Goldberg, Uto Ughi, Leonid Kogan, Kreisler, Grumiaux, Shumsky, Odnoposoff, Friedman, Szering, Campoli, GImpel — all of whom I saw play or had records by. And Heifetz, three times, and talked to him once. It was a rIch era and a crowded field.

    Isaac Stern was one of them, a successful social politician-musician of great influence who could still turn out a beautiful Haydn, Mozart, Sibelius, or Beethoven concerto and chamber music including a turn with Horowitz. I liked the way he stood, stock still,feet well apart, sawing wood.

    But the “Stern Gang’ also worked to keep some German musicians out of the U.S. after WWII, including Furtaengler and Gieseking, with help from Rubinstein and others, and with some cause and success.

    I’ll be interested to read David Nelson’s remarks with those of our other string gurus, and Norman’s review, which I’m getting nearer to among the stock reports. The WSJ has had a surprisingly strong field of reviewers and arts articles, unepected.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Well, um, “thanks” Edgar. The pressure is on …. I hear great violin playing in Stern’s early recordings, such as the ones that were released both on 78s and early LPs. The Tchaikovsky Concerto with Hilsberg; Wieniawski, Sibelius with Beecham. Showpieces by Saint-Saens, Waxman/Bizet, Ravel; encores by Sarasate and Bloch. That powerful bow arm and fearless approach impress even today. And he continued to make good recordings into the late LP mono and early stereo era; Mozart 1, 3 and 5 with Szell, Prokofievs and Mendelssohn/ Tchaikovsky (Auer cuts) with Ormandy. Viotti No 22. Bartok, Barber, Bernstein Serenade. Brahms Sonatas 1 and 3 with Zakin. The Trio recordings have some nice things even purely as violin playing.

      There are violin fans who sneer that Stern never recorded any Paganini because he was afraid, but there are certainly fearsome passages in Prokofiev, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Sarasate that seem to me to establish Stern’s bona fides as a virtuoso. But it is a fair point. Even the aloof and scholarly Szigeti was an excellent Paganini player if the surviving evidence is any indication.

      His Dvorak Concerto with Ormandy is not my favorite interpretation (I do like the Romance that filled out the LP) but in the soloist’s opening passages the violin ends the first passage with a high E. It is marked as a harmonic in my part but Stern his it solidly and powerfully and it is electrifying. The next similar passage then ends on – I think it is an even higher A (too lazy to get the fiddle or dig up the music, sorry) and again Stern hits it like Barry Bonds hit a baseball. When I studied the Dvorak I tried to do the same, and as the saying goes, “hilarity ensued,” but my teacher knew immediately which recording I was trying to emulate (and it sure wasn’t Suk or Milstein, although those would have been more mature choices) and laughed “nice try, Isaac.” That is how famous Stern’s handling of those two isolated notes was among violinists who came of age during his era.

      I worked under a conductor who was a friend of Isaac Stern’s (his, the conductor’s that is, father had conducted a European radio orchestra whose staff pianist had been Alexander Zakin, Stern’s long time associate). Anyway that conductor told me that everything about Stern’s violinism had to be separated into “before the heart attack” and “after the heart attack,” and that this had been in the 1960s. Stern’s autobiography mentions a virus attack that put him out of commission for a while, but this conductor insisted that it was a heart attack and that while Stern recovered his violin playing was not quite the same.

      I heard Stern with orchestra and in recital and he was still capable of giving very good performances in the 1970s. I remember he played, for some reason, just the last movement of the Ravel Sonata in recital and it made me regret he had never recorded the piece. He could still play quite well up to and, I’d say, including the new violin concertos by Rochberg, Maxwell Davies, Dutilleux, and Penderecki that he recorded. But his 60th birthday concert recordings, a big seller — I hear strain and his intonation and purity of tone is failing. Having said that I hear even worse problems in recordings Menuhin was making in the 1940s and 1950s when he was still a young man, but still one could hear the direction things were going for Stern. The tone got grainy and sour.

      The last Stern recital I heard was a sad farewell. The sound was wan and very small, in spite of big gestures with the bow. It was Stern playing but it was not an “Isaac Stern concert.” He did not seem to really want to play. Or rather he just couldn’t.

      Even some rather late recordings by Stern can be enjoyed. His Faure piano quartets are not just beautiful music making but some actual good violin playing. He turned to the Mozart piano and violin sonatas probably at the right time, when he couldn’t have given the violin part undue emphasis even if he had wanted to, and the vibrato was much reduced as well. His all Kreisler disc has a bit of sparkle now and then.

      Given Stern’s stature, and obvious importance to Columbia/CBS records perhaps the biggest shock is that somehow the unaccompanied Bach, which he clearly knew and played and some is on YouTube, was not recorded or at least not released. Szigeti recorded it for Columbia and they decided not to release it (Vanguard eventually acquired the tapes and it is hardly shameful playing at all), which makes me think Columbia was thinking about Stern doing it even in the early 1950s. (Francescatti recorded unaccompanied Bach for Columbia but not a complete set; Columbia did have an early 1950s complete set in their catalog by a rather obscure violinist playing the adjustable so called Baroque bow that Tossy Spivakovsky championed, so it was not meant as a really “competitive” entry).
      For a long time the only set of unaccompanied Bach on Columbia was a reissue of Szeryng’s on the bargain Odyssey label. I wonder what Stern thought about THAT.

      If Stern did record the unaccompanied Bach but it sits in a vault because he was not satisfied with it, then that is to his credit because clearly he did authorize those late recordings of things that were not his best playing.

      Of Stern the musical politician and influence … he did some good — I mean saving Carnegie Hall! — and helped some fine young artists begin their careers. Clearly he did his best to frustrate some other people’s careers — we all know about Rosand and some say Szeryng, but Steven Staryk told me Ricardo Odnoposoff was another casualty and I had not heard that before. Maybe the big disappointment is that Stern was so evasive and dismissive and denying about his musical political side. For those who want to see in Stern a rather calculating careerist, it is interesting that from his earliest days he seemed to seek out and associate with an older generation of artists: Hilsberg , Walter, Beecham, and of course, Casals, which gave Stern the patina of a grand old man of music while he was still pretty youthful. But that is a cynical view.

      So as you can see I have no special insights to offer. Mostly variations on the same themes sounded by others. I’d just close by saying that the Stern discography is of course a large one, and there are some really fine things in it. It would be sad if only his latest recordings are listened to because they have the most recent recorded sound or involve conductors and pianists that people have still heard of.

      • Amos says:

        Sorry to make short shrift of your insightful analysis but I’ve read that George Szell asked Stern on more than one occasion “Why don’t you practice more”. Stern supposedly always replied because I like to do other things.

      • fflambeau says:

        “…whose staff pianist had been Alexander Zakin, Stern’s long time associate).” I met him at a dinner event; he only spoke Russian and perhaps Yiddish. Nice man and very talented.

      • If Stern had simply owned the fact that he was mainly a politician and an activist after the first decade of his career, it would have been fine. He would have been also quite easily accepted as an impresario or a talent pusher. Instead, he competed to be a great violinist with likes of Szeryng, which obviously was not to his advantage. In the end, instead of being celebrated or respected as a very important and effective lobbyist and political figure, he became reviled as the person who stifled other violinist’s careers. Erick Friedman, Odnopossoff, Szeryng, Rosand, Staryk, Gitlis, Mintz, the list is quite long, to the point of comical. Literally if you were not a Soviet or the old guard (i.e. Milstein or Heifetz), then Stern would mess with your career …nutts.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        If I were half as erudite as you are, David, and If I could write half as well, I would simply plagiarize and rewrite everything you wrote in your marvelous posting.
        “So as you can see I have no special insights to offer”? Methinks you are being too modest.
        My curiosity is killing me: “Columbia did have an early 1950s complete set in their catalog by a rather obscure violinist playing the adjustable so called Baroque bow”. Who WAS that violinist, anyway? And it was the Vega bow, right?
        I just saw a short article on p. 21 of the May 2020 issue of the Strad advertising a bow that from its not-very-clear photo looks quite similar to the Vega bow and seems to be operated in the same way: the Polycorde violin bow, selling for a cool 2200 Australian dollars.
        As you are no doubt aware, the Vega bow was an interesting experiment, but its period authenticity has been shot down by numerous violin scholars. It’ll be interesting to follow the progress of the Polycorde.
        Circling back to the main subject at hand, yes – in his early prime Stern certainly merited the title of “great violinist”, for all the reasons you mention. I’ve always been a big fan of his recorded Bartok concerti, no. 1 with Ormandy and no. 2 with Bernstein, and for that matter all of his earlier mono recordings, under other conductors such as Mitropoulos, Beecham, and Hilsberg.

  • F. P. Walter says:

    Alas, WSJ won’t let Americans read their stuff unless we pay up first and become subscribers. Not me. They’re skewed way to the right. Any way, Norman, you could post your entire review?

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    He saved the greatest hall in America. If that is his legacy, so be it. It is a legacy to be proud of.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Greatest hall in America? That designation would come as a surprise to anyone who has been to a concert in Symphony Hall in Boston, which many consider to be one of the three greatest halls in the world (alongside the Musikverein and the Concertgebouw).

  • phf655 says:

    I would like to read the full review, but it is behind a paywall

  • Bruce says:

    No. I’ve listened to recordings he made when he was younger as well as older. (Of course I only had a chance to hear him live when he was older and doing the “elder statesman” routine. Nobody expected him to play well by then, they just wanted to be able to say they’d been there… as I can now :-P)

    The things he’s remembered for, and rightly so, are his teaching, his self-promotion, his fostering of new talent, his shameless power-brokering, his entrepreneurship… Saving Carnegie Hall would put him in the musical pantheon if he hadn’t even been a musician.

    He always had a thin, scratchy sound and never played very well in tune. I think he made a career niche out of being an American and American-trained. Was he good enough to travel around giving concerts and making recordings? Sure, why not. But was he one of the great fiddlers of history? Not in my opinion.

  • TonyF says:

    Isaac has my endorsement, for what that is worth.
    Fine musician, great player, great sense of humour, loyal to colleagues. I looked forward to every project working with Isaac, and am sad I missed out on the projects which had been scheduled at the time of his passing and could not be completed.

  • steven holloway says:

    What I really want to see somewhere in the post are the details of the book. Author would help, for example. I’m not planning on subscribing to the WSJ just to see the whole review, the newspaper being another of the conservative rags you favour and who favour you and your review not particularly significant.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      It is shocking that there are publications that disagree with you. In the coming golden age of American liberalism none of that nonsense will be tolerated

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      The new biography is Isaac Stern is this:

      The Lives of Isaac Stern by David Schoenbaum

      Its publication date is June 23, 2020.

  • Doug says:

    Blocked behind a paywall. Long after his death, Stern still earns.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Couldn’t hold a candle to Heifetz, Oistrach or Kogan to name a few.

  • MacroV says:

    His recording of the Beethoven concerto with Bernstein is one of my favorites, but I’ve read it has dozens (maybe hundreds?) of splices, so not really a reflection of his true playing. I’m sure I’ve read here on SD about the “Earn with Stern” period NY Phil musicians experienced in the day. I’ve had my “Wait, that was ISAAC STERN? Who knew he could play like that?” moments when hearing some of his recordings blind. Maybe those were similarly products of the tape editor.

    Also, as has been extensively litigated here, his reported sabotaging of the likes of Aaron Rosand (an immeasurably superior violinist, IMHO).

  • Bill Ecker says:

    Looking at Stern will always be a mixed bag. He promoted the careers of Perlman, Zuckerman, Ma and others. While clearing out competitors where he could like Aaron Rosand. Saving Carnegie Hall will always be his legacy. That said in my long experience speaking with professionals, authors and amateurs alike as a music antiquarian, his playing suffered after he began involving himself in outside project like Carnegie Hall, the National Endowment for the Arts and other projects after 1960. For that reason, it has always been difficult to sell autographs and ephemera of his after 1960 to the violinist collectors and dilettantes.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thanks for those s comments, David Nelson. Stern’s solo Bach was a surprise. I saw Szigeti play G minor and another in the surgical theater of U.C. medical school on Panassus in San Francisco. It was late Szigeti, sly, stooped, darting clever glances around him, and starting his slow vibrato with bow still in the air, before it touched a string. I like Uto Ughi’s on a Guarnerius del Gesu and have others by Enesco, Hubermann, Shumsky, Busch, and Heifetz. I like to alternate them with Ysaye’s, Shumsky again, wih Leila Josefowitz and one other.

  • M2N2K says:

    Like the majority of other commenters here, I have mixed feelings about IS. His championing of Carnegie Hall was wise and is (more or less universally) appreciated. He was warm and helpful to some people most of whom would have probably succeeded on their own anyway, but he could also be cold and seriously hurtful to others who deserved better. His violin playing was mostly very good until around 1965, but after that it was getting progressively mediocre and eventually even worse than that. This is why I cannot consider him a “great violinist” in a century that was lucky to have several truly great ones.

  • fflambeau says:

    I think part of his fame comes from his magnetic pesonality and all the things he achieved in his life (not only preserving Carnegie Hall but discovering and promoting new talent, doing educational outreach etc.).

    I can attest that he had a magnetic personality. I met him when I was an undergraduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. He was charming, sophisticated, did not have any airs at all (although he was then already famous) and was genuinely interested in what I as a student was doing. He was extremely impressive. And he and his pianist played a classical number for a small group of students. He was very good as a violinst but not in the Heiffitz category as I think he himself would acknowledge.

  • Nigel Goldberg says:

    The mistake, in my opinion, is the need to always compare. Great artists stand on their own merits and whatever his human shortcomings, Issac Stern was a great artist.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg Bottini, now it is you who are being too modest.

    I remember the Vega or Vegh bow experiment with a thumbscrew to relax the bow’s horsehair and allow playing solid chords, as in the Chaconne. I remember the violinist as Emil Telmanyi, but am not sure. It may have been a good idea, but it wasn’t convincing or pleasant. Few violinists, and no cellist I know, adopted it. Maybe some gambists? Yet Raff, Brahms, and Busoni chose solid chords for their Chaconne transcriptions.

    David Nelson deserves the George Cross with palm leaf and battle stars.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, Edgar.
      Yes, it was Emil Telmanyi – the name came back to me as soon as I read your post, and you sparked a memory for me: I heard those recordings at a friend’s home eons ago and disliked them intensely, having at hand for comparison Szeryng’s mono set on Odyssey. And the Vega bow was not only inauthentic, it was an ugly piece of work – it looked like a demented hacksaw.
      I heartily second your nomination re: The George Cross. There were four reviewers at the old Fanfare magazine who were head and shoulders above the others: DKN, Haig Mardirosian, Charles Timbrell, and Mortimer Frank. I gave up my subscription after some of the lesser lights started sniping at each other in the “Critic’s Corner” section. Thanks, David, for everything you’ve written!

  • Anthony Martin says:

    Rolf Schroeder (no relation to Jaap Schroeder) was the violinist who recorded Bach with the bogus bow for Columbia. It had its origin in speculation by Albert Schweitzer, who as an organist preferred four-note chords to be sustained. He had read that in the 16th & 17th centuries some violinists held their thumbs on the hair, not realizing that the earljier frogs had open channels, so that the thumb was holding something more solid than just the bow hair. Musicologist Arnold Schering had at first promoted Schweitzer’s speculations, then later disowned them, but they live on, giving birth to the ahistorical contraptions that Telmanyi & Schroeder & even later violinists have used.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Thank you Anthony, yes it was Rolf Schroeder’s three LP set for Columbia (SL-189) I was referring to, recorded according to the record cover, in 1952 under the supervision of Albert Schweitzer (who was making some organ recordings for Columbia about that same time) “using the curved bow of Bach’s time.” This is not the time or place to get into the physical and practical challenges of translating what one sees what Bach wrote to what actually comes out of bow-on-string(s) (that added plural however is key to the issue). I’d only say that the Vega bow involved hedging your bets in a way that the genuine Baroque bow and the modern so-called Tourte bow do not permit. Even Joe Venuti had to change things quickly when he wanted to play four strings at once!

      A few remarks about other comments on my comments (and thanks for the words of praise).

      Amos: I fully believe the Szell/Stern mot about practicing and there were likely good reasons why the two stalwarts of the Columbia Records catalog recorded so little together. But I am glad they did those Mozarts. Kreisler used to brag about never practicing as well, claiming his entire repertoire was like recordings in his brain, needing at most only dusting off.

      John Marks. Yes, my teacher told me Stern was a notorious “wolf” (my teacher’s word) and that his own teachers, names you would recognize, tried to warn their female students about him. What is curious is that with the long list of young talent that Stern championed, there seem to be so few female beneficiaries of whatever quid pro quo working with Stern involved. So it was not only vile, but a one way street.

      Former Violinist. The only name in your list of violinists whose careers Stern is thought to have stymied that shocks me is Mintz. I thought he was one of the beneficiaries. I do know that when the Milwaukee Symphony went on an East Coast tour many years ago, their violin soloist was a fellow who at that time had an up and coming career (and I had heard him play and he was very good, and he went on to become a very respected teacher), I won’t give the name but let’s just say he shared a last name with a VERY famous violinist but was no relation. I no longer recall if the vehicle of choice was Mendelssohn or Saint Saens 3, but never once did the soloist get through the piece without a huge memory lapse. As THE important concert of the entire tour approached the conductor, I think Kenneth Schermerhorn, went into a panic, called Stern asking for help, and Stern recommended the then-little known Shlomo Mintz, who scored a bit triumph and saved the day. If they later had a falling out I have not heard about it and it certainly did the Mintz career little or no harm!

  • Isaac Stern can heard on the Feb 3 1946 episode of the Jack Benny radio show, playing the Mendelssohn and delivering sketch comedy lines.

    Stern’s fee was $5000 according to Jack Benny.

  • NYMike says:

    At a live ’62 or ’63 Westchester County Center concert with Stern and the Symphony of the Air (I was in the string section) his traversal of the Beethoven Cto. was so out of tune as to be embarrassing to us all.

  • Steve Frucht says:

    There can be little doubt that Stern was a great musician, a music lover and supporter, whose integrity and respect for the devotion and ideal of music inspired several generations of students. Was he a great violinist? Of only has to listen to the early recordings, particularly of repertoire such as Wieniawski 2, Bartok 2, Bruch, Brahms. He was one of the first soloists to devote himself to the chamber music repertoire. Was there controversy? Certainly, as there would be with any strong personality. But most importantly, he was a great musician first, a wonderful fiddle player second, and an inspiration to several generations of musicians.

  • Cello Ears says:

    I think that Stern’s violin playing is certainly in the great category. I am too young to have heard him live in his prime, as are most of the commentators on this site. However, I think one can get a good idea by listening to his early live recordings and videos on YouTube. The Vieuxtemps 4th is one of the best I have heard and there are wonderful video recordings of solo Bach, the Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Wieniawski 2nd concerto finale, and Polonaise no 1, Geminiani sonata etc. His trio was also a leader in this genre.

    His best performances have huge personality and commitment and still communicate in a way that few of his peers did. He had an extraordinary ability to excite and move. While I consider that digital accuracy is far less important a criteria for greatness than his ability to communicate, these early performances are in the top virtuoso league – just listen to the truncated Wieniawski concerto finale or the Vieuxtemps 4th. To my ears, the best perfomances in in his prime are in the very top category (with Heifetz, Oistrakh et al.) and I have not heard any performances by Rosand in that league.

    While his playing clearly deteriorated as he got older, the same occurred with many other undeniably great violinists, like Ysaye, Kreisler, Menuhin and Elman. I suspect he had more years in his prime than these other violinists. Thus, poor performances when he was past his prime should not influence one’s judgement of whether he was as great violinist. I am surprised that this has been questioned.

    I believe that his violinistic greatness needs to be considered distinct from whether he was a nice man or not. We all can name great musicians who were not nice people. However, as someone who has no personal or professional interest in this discussion, I find that the comments about his personality verge on the distasteful. As far as I can see, the prime plaintiff against Stern is Rosand – to my ears, Rosand was very good but clearly not a violinist in the top league in terms of communication. Many of the other names who have been apparent victims of Stern’s influence are also not in the top league to my ears. Maybe Stern’s ears and mine heard similar things. As everything I am reading about Stern’s influence on the careers of apparent competitors is merely an accusation, my ears suggest that he made the right judgement on most of these people. Clearly, he had the power to influence careers – this itself is not a character flaw. But is easy to see how people could become unhappy with decisions made such an influential and powerful man. The question one should be asking is if he acted non-professionally or not (e.g. promoting people who were unsuitable or not supporting people because of personal or selfish reasons). This is not apparent to me. Even the issue of whether he made incorrect judgements on whom to support is not a significant concern to me (as we all make mistakes).

    One last comment for John Marks. Before people make second hand historical sexual abuse accusations they should think very carefully – imagine if this was your deceased father. Such accusations are easy to make and are very difficult to prove or falsify (if historic to this degree) but can do great damage even if proved to be false, as we have seen in recent years. I suggest that Mr Lebrecht uses his editorial prerogative to remove such accusations.

  • Lu lu says:

    Here are Mr. Fou Ts’ong’s comments on Issac Stern in an interview around 2001 (translated by google translator from Chinese, so please excuse the sometimes rough wording; and Mr Fou was known to speak his mind freely in interviews… I even feel he went a bit far on the politics, but again that is who he was and that was still a time when talking one’s mind frankly won’t be categorically labelled as politically incorrect):

    “Isaac Stern was a bully in the classical music industry, I can say so! Relying on the power of American Jews and the support of Israel, he wanted to exclude dissidents. As long as anyone in the music industry does not support Israel, he will attack them, so I really dislike him! He likes to engage in politics in the music world and entangled in factions. In the United States, isn’t his group called “Stern gang”? It means “STERN GANG”! It is composed of some very famous people….This is actually a Jewish political group in the music industry! Anyone who does not belong to the “STERN GANG” group and does not align with the “STERN GANG” politically, Stern will exclude and drive him away. Haven’t a group of musicians been driven away in this way and forced to leave the United States? They cannot gain a foothold in the United States! If people in the music industry want to succeed in the United States, they must be close to Stern. That’s how Yo-Yo Ma became [successful]!

    I know a little bit about the movie “From Mao to Mozart” you mentioned. When Stern came to China, he wanted to engage in politics and promote himself. As soon as the plane arrived [in China], the large crew of filmmakers came with it made it embarrassing for the Chinese side to not accept it! The main point of the “Stern Gang” is that it will create public opinion and control it! Public opinion all over the world is in their hands! …“

    Here is the bit of the scoop on Kyung Wha Chung by Mr. Fou:
    “Kyung Wha Chung participated in an international competition, and there is a story here. There used to be a big competition every year in New York, and many people participated. Zuckerman also participated in the same competition, and Isaac Stern was the chairman of the judges. Pinchas Zukerman is also a very good violinist, but he did not play well that time. The conclusion of the other judges is very clear-there is no doubt that Chung should be the first! But Stern disagreed, saying that a rematch was necessary. I don’t know if they competed again, I only know that at the end, these two people shared the First Prize! … This incident also shows what a bully Stern is! So Chung couldn’t stay in the United States. She came to Britain when she was 21! Her success was made in Europe, but because there was no place for her in the United States!”