A few months ago the moving and often thrilling Oistrakh
documentary biography made by Bruno Monsaingeon
became available on DVD (see review)
It contained many tantalising extracts of the great violinist in action.
Tantalising because, in my case at least, I wanted to hear the full
performances to which I did not otherwise have access. A compilation
of complete renderings of those extracts could justifiably be labelled
"the Essential David Oistrakh". A CD with that title does
exist, produced by RCA but now out of print (see review).
It consists entirely of orchestral works, all in Soviet performances,
including a devastating rendering of Shostakovich's First Violin
Concerto with the Leningrad Philharmonic under the great Mravinsky.
This EMI Classics compilation is quite different from
either of the productions described above. I assume the items were largely
dictated by what was available to EMI to distribute. Three main features
distinguish it: first, the performances were all recorded in the West,
second, the majority of the works is chamber music and third, there
are no live concert performances apart from the Bach concerto. Consequently,
the DVD cannot claim to be a broad representation of the "Essential
David Oistakh" but for the violinist’s fans it will serve as both
contrasting and complementary to the essential Monsaingeon
film on their DVD shelves.
The only sample of a post baroque, repertory concerto
is the last movement of the Brahms which, according to a logic that
eludes me, is included as a 'bonus' item. This is not a live concert
performance and I cannot spot the London venue. Recorded in 1958 Oistrakh
is ably partnered with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance that
may not be as electric as, for example, the one captured on RCA's CD
with the Moscow Philharmonic but the beauty of Oistrakh’s unsentimental,
lyrical line is much in evidence. The conductor, the BBCSO's chief at
the time, is a suave Rudolf Schwarz who, when enthusiastically bear
hugged by Oistrakh at the end reacts less than comfortably with Austrian
reserve - or maybe it is an acquired English form of that characteristic.
He does, however, sport an impressively distinguished, silvery hairstyle
reminiscent of the later Karajan.
The first piece on the disc is the Bach A minor
Concerto in a live Royal Festival Hall performance from 1961 conducted
by a youthful Colin Davis whose hairstyle is dark, perky and frizzy.
As he conducts the excellent English Chamber Orchestra, he looks as
if he is trying to imitate the mature suavity of Schwarz. The result
is a rather pompous, self conscious, podium presence. This may be a
contributory factor in the performance taking a while to warm up. Oistrakh
as always is self-effacingly professional and by the slow second movement
his absorbed concentration is bearing results. An absolute beauty prevails
whereby one feels that he really is, unlike many a violinist, trying
to sound like Bach rather than Oistrakh. Ego free. Very refreshing.
Having recently seen Davis conduct, I can report that in his seventies
he has acquired, paradoxically, a more youthful, athletic podium style
during the intervening 40 years. More uninhibited and, like Oistrakh,
more ego free.
Of the other six items, all recorded in Paris in 1962
in salon-style settings, three are single movements extracted from sonatas
by Schubert, Brahms and Prokofiev. Then there is one miniature - an
arrangement of Clair de Lune. Miniatures were not normally Oistrakh's
thing and he rarely included them in his programmes except as encore
pieces. The complete items are the Five Melodies of Prokofiev
and Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata, the latter, together with the
Bach Concerto, providing the real meat on the disc. Some people
may consider the disc worth owning just for the Beethoven. Here Oistrakh
is accompanied by the outstanding Lev Oborin in a partnership that was
well established and it shows. When Oborin enters with the first piano
statement of the famous opening tune, it is a delight and perfectly
matches Oistrakh's initial rendering. They had recorded this work some
years earlier for Melodiya in the USSR and must have played it many
times together. Neither need to look at each other.
Watching how musicians interact like that can be a
fascinating aspect of music DVDs and even with the rather static camera
work of over 40 years ago, much is to be observed on this disc, not
least the wonderful father/son performance of the second movement of
Prokofiev's Sonata for 2 violins where David and Igor are both
facing the camera, each with their own music and stand, something that
hardly seems necessary since both appear to play for most of the time
with their eyes shut – except when it comes to a beautifully synchronised
However, in the Scherzo of the Brahms F.A.E. Sonata,
a work that is very much a violin/piano partnership, the camera
perversely fixes on Oistrakh the whole time. Never a glimpse do we get
of his poor accompanist, Frida Bauer. We do see her in Clair de Lune
though, a piece where her role is musically subordinate!
So this is something of a hotch-potch of a disc that,
consisting as it does of mostly extracts, has something of an Oistrakh
sampler about it. The disc does not capture any of the great occasion
live performances that we glimpse in Monsaingeon’s film – for example,
the partnership with Rostropovich where they seem to be egging each
other on to greater musical heights, and the electrifying world premiere
of the Shostakovich Second Concerto. But we do have noble performances
of two complete masterpieces and can observe, over a range of music,
the integrity-oozing style of one of the 20th century’s great violinists.
Here was a man not famous for ostentation but whose performances gained
strength from the feeling that there were always huge reserves of technique
and power at his disposal that were never called upon just for the sake
of marking a passing moment.