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DVD review
DAVID OISTRAKH violin: EMI Classics Archive Series
Bach A minor Concerto

Allegro - Trio. Piu moderato
Filmed London, May 1958
EMI CLASSICS 7243 4 92836 9 5 [75:57]


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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 page turn!

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.

John Leeman

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