Igor Oistrakh's British debut took place in 1953 at the Royal Albert Hall, heralding a new phase in Anglo-Russian artistic relations. Oistrakh was born in Odessa in 1931, studying later with his father, the legendary David Oistrakh. Competition successes in Budapest (1949) and at the Wieniawski International Competition in 1952 led to an international and long-lasting career. He has been associated with names such as Klemperer, Richter, Giulini, Karajan and Solti, to name but a few.
It was a healthy idea to hire a young up-and-coming conductor to preside over the ECO on this occasion. Benjamin Wallfisch (born 1979) is a composer/conductor who hails from the RNCM/University of Manchester and the Royal Academy of Music. His chance to shine in his own right came with the first piece in the programme, Mozart's 'Haffner Symphony' (No. 35 in D, K385). This was an essentially well-behaved account, punchy and incisive in the Allegro con spirito, suave in the Andante, robust in the Minuetto. The finale gave the strings the opportunity to show what they can do: and yet, there was something missing. The wind soloists of the ECO today pale in comparison with their more illustrious precursors from the orchestra's heyday, and it was obvious that the whole orchestra was warming up for the great man himself, anyway.
Igor Oistrakh is now in his seventies. For most people, two concertos in one concert would be challenging: the sheer confidence he radiated throughout was remarkable.
The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E, Op. 64, was perhaps the more convincing account of the two. The sweet-toned opening augured well, but the technique was not 100% in place, and some scrappy accompaniments detracted from the musical flow. It was a pity that the Andante sounded rushed and lost its ability to touch, despite the judiciously applied poramenti of Oistrakh.
The Beethoven fared better. It was strange to hear it played by such a small orchestra: the exposition of the first movement was neat but not spacious, lacking in depth and frequently literal. Oistrakh's tuning could wander, and there was the occasional slip. The Rondo went some way to redress the balance, with Oistrakh's playing on the G-string particularly gripping, and there was an impressive cadenza. The well-filled auditorium was enthusiastic, but somehow the general impression was, unfortunately, something of a letdown.