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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN / MOZART / BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos (Oistrakh, Ormandy) (1955)
This edition of the first American recordings by the great Ukrainian violinist, David Oistrakh, takes us back to a golden age. Made in one astonishingly long burst of creativity on Christmas Eve 1955, they demonstrate a legendary violinist at his absolute peak, recorded in better sound than he could have expected in his own country and sympathetically supported by a great orchestra and
conductor. Oistrakh brought to his interpretations of the classics a big, beautiful tone, a sturdy sense of rhythm and a feeling of latent power, which frequently imparted a creative tension to many of his performances, as can be sensed in the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto here, the second of his two official recordings of this masterpiece. This fine Philadelphia recording of the Bach E major Concerto was the first of three that he made in the studio, while the Mozart was the first and better of his two commercial recordings.
By David Denton
Over the years I have raved about the latest violin virtuoso
to arrive on the scene, but I always find myself returning to my David Oistrakh
recording whenever I want to hear impeccable good taste. Maybe today we look
at his Bach through critical eyes accustomed to the newly arrived period instrument
performances. That would make his tone just a little too rounded, the Philadelphia's
contribution a little heavy handed and the slow movement and finale a mite ponderous,
phrases rounded off with a degree of rubato that has become an anachronism.
By contrast the Mozart account is sprightly, Oistrakh lightening his tone, his
view one of considerable happiness, with the cadenza in the finale his one moment
of outgoing virtuosity. But it is the Mendelssohn that remains one of Oistrakh's
great achievements, the sheer dexterity masking the use of fast tempos, the
sprint to the end of the first movement exciting but never breathless. There
is, of course, the honeyed tone to the slow movement, his big approach to the
finale in keeping with the overall shape of his performance. All three concertos
were recorded on Christmas Eve in 1955, the great violinist receiving for the
first time the sound quality that did is playing justice. The orchestra was
unstinting in support, Ormandy moving perfectly in accord with the soloist.
On this present reissue the source material is less than ideal in the Bach,
but afterwards improves significantly to a most pleasing sound.
Bach (1685-1750) • Mozart (1756-1791) • Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
The great Ukrainian violinist David Oistrakh (1908–74) won the prestigious competition held in Brussels in 1937 in memory of Ysaÿe. His career should have been instantly made but World War II and then the Cold War intervened. Not until 1946 did he begin to appear outside the Soviet Union, and only in 1951, when he was in his early forties and a mature artist, did he come to the West, playing in Italy. He visited France in 1953 and Britain in 1954, but America at the height of the Cold War seemed an impossibility. Then in October 1955 the ice was broken when his illustrious colleague Emil Gilels toured the United States in triumph. Oistrakh soon followed, making his début on 20 November in the famous 'Day of the Violinists' at Carnegie Hall – his recital was held to have trumped the performances by Mischa Elman and Nathan Milstein. His orchestral début followed on the 25th and 26th with the Brahms and Prokofiev First Concertos in Philadelphia – a good choice because the incumbent maestro Eugene Ormandy was renowned for his uncanny control over his players – and his first American recordings, for Columbia, were made a month later with the same accompanists. Meanwhile he made his New York orchestral début on 21 December with the Tchaikovsky and Brahms Concertos under Dimitri Mitropoulos; and having delayed his departure, he followed the Philadelphia sessions by returning to New York for the United States première of Shostakovich's First Concerto, recording it with Mitropoulos on the day after their third performance of it. In the course of his six-week tour he had not only conquered the American critics but won the hearts of the musical public.
A native like Gilels of that musical melting pot, Odessa, Oistrakh had a more liberal education than his Leningrad and Moscow rivals. He was the only one of the great violinists of the twentieth-century Russian school to owe nothing to the teaching of Leopold Auer. Born David Kolker on 30 September 1908, he took the name of his musician stepfather; his mother was also musical and often took him to the opera. At three he was given a toy fiddle but not until he was five did he begin serious studies, at the school of Piotr Stoliarsky: through this eccentric but effective teacher, Oistrakh absorbed mainly Czech traditions, escaping the Hungarian influence which predominated in Russia. Only in the 1920s, when he came under the spell of the Auer pupil Miron Poliakin and the Hungarian soloist Joseph Szigeti, did he start to absorb the Magyar tradition, and by then it was wholly beneficial, feeding into his already well developed love of Brahms's music. In 1923 he entered the Odessa Institute of Music and Drama and gave his first concerto performance, Bach's Concerto in A minor, and in 1924 he made his recital début. His graduation programme in 1926 consisted of Bach's Chaconne, Tartini's 'Devil's Trill' Sonata, Prokofiev's First Concerto and Rubinstein's Viola Sonata. The following year he was crushed when Prokofiev publicly slated his interpretation of the concerto, but later they became chess-playing friends and Prokofiev wrote two sonatas for him.
In 1928 Oistrakh moved to Moscow and in 1934 he became an assistant professor at the Conservatory. He won the 1935 Leningrad competition but weeks later was beaten by sixteen-year-old Ginette Neveu in the Wieniawski Competition in Warsaw – even the French juror Gabriel Bouillon suspected anti-Semitism. Oistrakh made his Paris, Vienna and Budapest débuts and formed a sonata duo with Lev Oborin. His triumph in the Ysaÿe Competition made him the hottest property among Soviet fiddlers. He became a full professor at the Conservatory in 1938 and premièred the Miaskovsky and Khachaturian Concertos. The war kept him at home, giving hundreds of concerts. He and Oborin linked up with Sviatoslav Knushevitzky in 1941 to form a trio (later there was also a string quartet, with Piotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Knushevitzky). During the war Oistrakh's friendship with Shostakovich developed – it brought him two concertos and a sonata. His international career, begun in 1946 in Prague, took off in the 1950s and the Russian and American premières of Shostakovich's First Concerto in 1955 set the seal on his fame. From 1959 he took up conducting and in 1967 he began to play sonatas with Sviatoslav Richter. He died suddenly in Amsterdam on 23 October 1974.
Whereas in Russia there was very little tradition of Bach interpretation – Auer was notoriously uninterested in Bach – Oistrakh imbibed a good deal of the composer's music under Stoliarsky's tutelage. It was at his teacher's suggestion that he chose the Bach Concerto in A minor for his first concerto performance with orchestra, and both of the solo Bach concertos were deeply woven into the fibre of his career. When his son Igor became a fine violinist, the two of them were often heard in the D minor Double Concerto, and of course Oistrakh played it with other colleagues, such as Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern. For some reason both Oistrakh and the other great Soviet violinist, Leonid Kogan, preferred the Concerto in E major to the A minor; and this fine Philadelphia recording was the first of three that Oistrakh made in the studio.
Mozart, too, became central to Oistrakh's philosophy, especially the three best concertos and the Sinfonia concertante, K. 364, in which he was equally adept at the violin and viola parts. His favourite among the solo concertos was the G major, K. 216, for which he wrote his own cadenzas, but for his Philadelphia sessions he chose the D major, K. 218, playing as usual the cadenzas by Ferdinand David. This was the first and better of the two commercial recordings of the concerto that he made. Built like a wrestler, with broad shoulders, he brought to his interpretations of the classics a big, beautiful tone and a sturdy sense of rhythm, along with a feeling of latent power and a certain muscularity. Only in Brahms, Tchaikovsky and the modern works written specially for him was the power fully unleashed. This feeling of the lid being kept on a mighty furnace imparted a certain creative tension to many of his performances – it can be sensed in the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto here, the second of his two official recordings of this masterpiece. Once again the cadenza is by Ferdinand David, for whom the work was composed.
This edition of David Oistrakh's first American recordings takes us back to a golden age. They were made in a positively Stakhanovite burst of energy on one long day in the studios that must have tested everyone's stamina. Due credit should be given to Ormandy, one of the great concerto accompanists – and a successful violinist under his original name, Jenö Blau, in his native Hungary – for keeping the pot boiling, and to the orchestral musicians who spent their Christmas Eve slaving in the cause of music. There is no room on this disc for Vivaldi's A minor Double Concerto with Isaac Stern, but that recording was done spontaneously at the very end of the marathon sessions, using a terrible edition with the wrong finale, and was bettered by both of Oistrakh's versions with his son Igor. We have here a legendary violinist at his absolute peak, recorded in better sound than he could have expected in his own country and sympathetically supported by both orchestra and conductor. What riches…
Recorded 24 December 1955 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
First issued on Columbia ML 5087 (Bach) and ML 5085 (Mozart, Mendelssohn)
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MENDELSSOHN / MOZART / BACH, J.S.: Violin Concerto...