Ivry Gitlis, a violinist known for fierce and powerfully individual performances over the course of a career that spanned almost 90 years, died Dec. 24 in a Paris nursing home. He was 98.
His family announced the death but gave no further details.
Gitlis was best known in Israel, Europe and Asia and visited the United States only rarely. A 1955 performance with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall where he played the Sibelius concerto under the direction of George Szell, received scathing reviews, as did an abbreviated recital tour in 1958. After that, Gitlis would not return until 1980 and made no secret of how little he liked the American music business.
A private recording exists of the 1955 Carnegie Hall performance and the qualities that make it so exciting today are likely what set off the contemporary critics.
It is tumultuously emotive, barely under control at times and certainly not as tidily polished as was expected from a young violinist of that era making a New York debut.
It might be called an “expressionist” performance and makes what was then almost a 50-year old concerto (the composer was still alive in Finland) seem daringly brand new.
It was left to a later generation to appreciate Gitlis fully. Pianist Stephen Hough worked with him in 2011, when the violinist was almost 90.
“There cannot be a more dangerous, free-spirited, unpredictable musician in front of the public today,” he wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph. “We both agreed that there was no point in rehearsing. I knew that whatever Ivry did at 10 a.m. would be completely different by 12 noon when we were onstage, so we just decided to wing it. All I was prepared for was the unprepared creativity of his artistry.”
Another admirer, cellist Steven Isserlis, acknowledged the controversy surrounding Gitlis in an article he wrote for slippedisc.com after learning of the violinist’s death. “His playing and his personality were on the controversial side of non-controversial,” he said. “He aroused extreme reactions in people; they either got it, or they didn’t. He wasn’t particularly happy about that — he wanted to be universally loved; but he had to accept it. He would never have dreamed of compromising for anyone.”
As Gitlis told a group of students in 2007: “Listen to your inner ear, which is connected directly to your heart and spirit, the one that tells you what you feel is you!”