A sprightly septuagenarian, Gitlis took the stage in his stride, smiled at his audience, put on his spectacles, tuned up and launched headlong into Paul Hindemith's rarely heard E flat Violin Sonata. His style is unmistakable: bright, penetrating, even a little abrupt, tapering his tone from a cutting sforzando to a wispy piano - often within a fraction of a second. His use of vibrato can be either sparing or intense, his phrasing extraordinarily malleable. The Hindemith sonata starts urgently and ends in a mood of veiled mystery, extremes that suit Gitlis's volatile personality.
His musical collaborator was the young American pianist Ana-Maria Vera, an estimable player (one of the encores, a Chopin Impromptu, was hers alone) who mirrored Gitlis's wayward manner to perfection. Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata found them varying the pulse to fit the mood of the phrase, indulging the moment rather than the structure. But there was an unexpected interruption, a minute or so into the second movement, when Gitlis turned towards his right and grimaced. Suddenly, both he and his pianist stopped playing: a soft, high whistling (a hearing aid?) had distracted them. It took Gitlis a little time to readjust: while Vera tackled a solo passage, he inspected the body of his violin, resuming the argument on cue for a performance rich in weird and wonderful gestures.
After the interval, Gitlis and his page-turner reappeared for a somewhat approximate but always compelling account of Bartok's unaccompanied Sonata. Who else on the current circuit could work the "Fuga" into such a frenzy or make such soulful music of the "Melodia"? And while connoisseurs weigh the balance of this or that Bartok or Beethoven interpretation, no one could question Gitlis's supreme mastery of such heart-stopping showpieces as Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen and Bloch's Nigun. Both were staggeringly effective - not because they were particularly fast, or sweet, or lusciously projected, but because Gitlis brought such immense temperament to them.
This was no superficial "flashback" to Jascha Heifetz or Fritz Kreisler (although Kreisler's music did feature among the encores), but a vivid reminder of such inspired mavericks as Vasa Prihoda and Bronislaw Huberman - Old-World masters who, like Gitlis, habitually gave the impression of improvising everything spontaneously. The parallel also extended to the odd spot of sour intonation, although with the temperature constantly rising and an unusually big risk-factor, no one really cared.
The violin encores were charmingly idiosyncratic: Kreisler's Syncopation (a comparative rarity) and Liebesleid, Moszkowski's Guitarre - easygoing "cross-over" delivered with unstinting panache and a very prominent twinkle in the eye.
The hall was packed with fellow violinists, Nigel Kennedy included: like Gitlis, he's played on both sides of the classical-jazz divide. "That's real character," he said, hand on heart, "and it all comes from here!"
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