The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: CD of the Week — Want a historic recording with great performances and sound? Try the new Sony CD celebrating Carnegie Hall and violinist Isaac Stern

March 4, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

You could hardly start a new series of historic recordings centered around on Carnegie Hall (below) and not have a more appropriate offering than Sony Classical has done with its “Keeping the Doors Open” CD in the “Carnegie Hall Presents” series.

The recent CD features American violinist Isaac Stern performing Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic as recorded live in 1967 in Israel (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) after that country’s victory in the Six-Day War.

In addition, a teaser of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s soulful Piano Trio in A Minor – performed at the “Concert of the Century” in 1976 — features the all-star cast of pianist Vladimir Horowitz, violinist Stern and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

The relatively budget-priced CD, in an eco-friendly package that foregoes the usual plastic slipcase, is aptly called “Keeping the Doors Open.”  Indeed, a whole new generation should know that the hallmark concert hall nearly fell in ruins to the demolition ball until Stern took on its preservation as a personal crusade in the late 1950s, when urban development and renewal ruled American cities.

So that’s the history and backstory of this CD: It celebrates the 90th anniversary of Stern’s birth and the 50th anniversary of Carnegie Hall’s rescue.

Now, loyal readers know that The Ear often does not like listening to historic recordings except as historical documents because of the inferior scratchy sound. Indeed, that is one problem with a lot of the outstanding historic recordings released on Naxos or even Sony’s private Carnegie Hall recordings of pianist Horowitz’s solo recitals in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s one thing to hear a historical snippet of 3 or 4 minutes of YouTube, another to listen to it for an hour or so.

But you needn’t worry in that score in this case. The sound is just fine. It’s not state of the art, but it is clear and it is stereo rather than mono.

The content is more interesting. It is easy to forget how extraordinarily good the young Isaac Stern (below) was.

Later on, his devotion to humanitarian causes, to music education and the living the good life often seemed to interfere with the playing of the rotund and jovial bon vivant Stern (below) who died in 2001. But he was a stupendous prodigy from San Francisco, and the Mendelssohn concerto was one of his specialties. (See and hear a different perform of it below.)

You can hear why. He is, by turns, lyrical and aggressive, and his tone is rich, his pitch accurate, his ensemble playing tight in this live recording that hasn’t been available for many years.

In the soulful and oh-so-Roossian Tchaikovsky Trio, you can hear Horowitz pounding out chords just a little too loudly at the beginning. But eventually he settles it and the celebrity trio does just fine. It’s just too damn bad we don’t hear the whole trio — but then no one ever did. This was historic moment in May of 1976, billed as the Concert of the Century in typical impresario hype, in the preserved and restored Carnegie Hall — where the main concert hall (below) is now named the Isaac Stern Auditorium.

Nonetheless, this is a festive CD that you can actually enjoy for the music and not just the occasion if you focus on the concerto.

And it also reminds you of a great American musician and a great American concert hall.

The Carnegie Hall series is still finding its legs, but now it is standing upright. The high standards set by this Isaac Stern “Keeping the Doors Open” CD make one very much look forward to what comes next in the series. After all, there should be much to draw on.

Do you know Isaac Stern’s playing?

What do you think of him as a musician and a humanitarian?

And what do you think of this CD?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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