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Five Isaac Stern Recordings You Need to Know

Violinist Isaac Stern’s remarkable triumphs on the Carnegie Hall stage—more than 250 performances that span six decades—and his heroic efforts to save the Hall from demolition are legendary. As you would expect, his discography is extensive and reflects a tremendous breadth of repertoire, from Baroque composers to music written expressly for him by his contemporaries. He even played on the Fiddler on the Roof film soundtrack. Here are five Isaac Stern recordings you must hear—including a few you may not have expected.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, “Archduke”

At first, Isaac Stern joined musical forces with pianist Eugene Istomin and cellist Leonard Rose just for the fun of it. Eventually they decided to perform a few concerts together—unusual for such accomplished solo artists—and made their Carnegie Hall debut as a trio on May 5, 1964. In his memoir, My First 79 Years, Stern recalls one of the famous trios of the time “was the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky Trio, the so-called million-dollar trio, which played only four or five concerts a year and made some recordings. We decided to call ourselves the Istomin-Stern-Rose $683,926.50 Trio.” Jokes aside, the trio’s gift for communicating a shared musical vision resulted in one of music’s great partnerships. In November 1970, they performed eight historic Carnegie Hall concerts that focused on Beethoven’s chamber music. A studio recording of the “Archduke” Trio showcases the brilliance of their art.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Isaac Stern played concertos by Szymanowski and Wieniawski, arranged for violin and piano, at his Carnegie Hall debut on January 8, 1943. On December 7, 1944, Stern joined Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto—his first Carnegie Hall performance with an orchestra. Stern recorded this concerto a number of times; the 1958 recording with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of his finest. Stern’s big tone—buoyed by the lush Fabulous Philadelphian sound—soars in the heroic opening movement, sings magnificently in the gorgeous central Canzonetta, and is breathlessly agile in the quicksilver finale.

Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano

Two titans of American classical music met in the studio when Stern joined composer-pianist Aaron Copland for a 1968 recording of his rarely heard Sonata for Violin and Piano. Stern’s glowing sound is perfectly suited to the idyllic beauty of Copland’s melodies, but he also summons plenty of muscle to complement Copland’s spikey pianism in the sonata’s energetic final movement.

Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium)

“Whatever happens tonight, fair or foul or flop, I want you to know how much I will always cherish your work on our Serenade,” wrote Leonard Bernstein to Isaac Stern before the world premiere of his piece. The 1954 premiere was in Venice, with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The New York premiere came two years later at Carnegie Hall, with Bernstein conducting the Symphony of the Air. Bernstein’s Serenade unfolds as a five-movement violin concerto that poses some daunting challenges for the soloist. Its gorgeous melodies—particularly the breathtaking “Agathon” movement—are ideally suited to Stern’s fluid, songlike phrasing, while the jazzy “Socrates: Alcibiades” finale showcases his crisp intonation and nimble bowing.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67

A vital part of Isaac Stern’s remarkable career was the way he nurtured young talent. Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Midori are among the violinists he mentored. In 1962, while Stern was in Paris, a friend encouraged him to hear a seven-year-old Chinese cellist named Yo-Yo Ma. Stern recalled, “I was astonished; truly astonished.” He encouraged his former trio mate, cellist Leonard Rose, to take Ma as a student. Things came full circle in 1987 when pianist Emanuel Ax—another musician Stern guided—joined the master and Ma on the Carnegie Hall stage. They played trios by Beethoven, Schubert, and Shostakovich. Their 1988 studio recording of the Shostakovich trio is riveting. In its spare opening measures Stern’s violin and Ma’s cello whisper and sigh, setting the melancholy tone. Shostakovich’s trio recalls Holocaust nightmares, and Stern digs into this music like no other violinist; the klezmer-laced dance of death propelled by Ax and Ma in the finale is shattering.

Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.