By Sasha Margolis
Ivry Gitlis, who turns ninety-eight years old this month, is a unique figure in the violin world—and an equally unique human being. [Update: Gitlis passed away Dec. 24, 2020.] His playing is instantly recognizable for its rhythmic freedom, its heightened emotional engagement, and especially its extraordinary palette of colors, which he produces with a mixture of very fast vibrato and non-vibrato, use of every possible contact point and bow speed, and highly expressive intonation. Gitlis appears unafraid to occasionally make an ugly sound—and the same fearlessness may be said to inform his entire attitude to life. As a result, his career has included an unusually wide range of experiences.
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Student of legendary teachers Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, and Carl Flesch, he has played with Jascha Heifetz accompanying on the piano, collaborated with Martha Argerich, performed in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, jammed with Oscar Peterson and Youssou N’Dour, and appeared in movies not only as a violinist but also as an actor, most notably as a hypnotist in Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H.
Gitlis was born in 1922 in the city of Haifa, in what was then British Mandate Palestine. After his talent was recognized by the visiting Bronislaw Huberman, he traveled at age eleven to Paris, where he initially studied with Marcel Chailley and Jules Boucherit, before going on to work with Thibaud, Enescu, and Flesch. He has lived longer in Paris than anywhere else, but during World War II, worked in a London munitions factory. After the war, he made a British debut with the London Symphony, and in 1951, his Paris debut. In 1954, his recording of the Berg Concerto with William Strickland and the Vienna Symphony won the Grand Prix du Disque. In 1963, he became the first Israeli violinist to play in the Soviet Union. In the ensuing years he has become a revered and beloved presence in the violin world—though not for every listener.
Gitlis’ musical personality is so strong, and his playing so idiosyncratic, that he will inevitably always have detractors. But this seems unlikely to bother Gitlis himself. As a musician and as a person, he embraces risk and conflict. “People talk about peace as if it’s something you put on a table,” he has said. “It’s not. Life is a conflict—there is conflict every second. Of course, conflict where there’s killing is bad, but conflict in itself is a great thing if you live it and feel it, and see the contrasts.”
While the raw clarity of Gitlis’ phrasing and its spotlighting of conflict, along with the strong, constant presence of his expressive persona, are perhaps equally likely to inspire or offend, his art is unquestionably well-suited to certain corners of the violin repertoire. Few violinists can bring out the devastating expressionism of Berg as Gitlis can. And few can so well capture the blend of modernist urgency, folky earthiness, and rhetorical grandeur in Bartók’s Second Concerto (played with Horenstein and the Vienna Symphony) and Solo Sonata.
In older repertoire, videos of Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” Paganini’s “La Campanella,” and Wieniawski’s Polonaise in D display Gitlis’ mercurial temperament, predilection for fast tempi, phenomenal coordination, and command of virtuoso bowing techniques. In an audio recording of Bloch’s “Nigun,” he is at his most improvisatory, while painting with an array of vivid, unusual colors. The effectiveness of Gitlis’ non-vibrato colors can be heard in his Sibelius Concerto, with Horenstein and Vienna—which also, in its third movement, features an opposite extreme, his ability to vibrate in the midst of the most demanding passagework. True Gitlis fans will find his controversial, imaginative Debussy and Franck Sonatas with Martha Argerich highly rewarding, while others may find them aggravatingly un-French. On the other hand, most can probably agree that Gitlis’ role in Le Concerto de Berlin, a piece of film music by Vladimir Cosma, is a perfect guilty pleasure.
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