David Oistrakh was a frequent visitor to London and fortunately the BBC had the foresight to film him, and to preserve the film, which was not something it always did. These three filmed performances date from 1961, in which he and his son Igor perform the Bach Double, and 1963 in which he plays a warhorse of his, the Brahms, and – a major rarity, this – the Sinfonia Concertante with Igor, with David playing the viola, conducted by Menuhin.
This last is a fascinating example of Oistrakh’s gift with the larger instrument, in which role he proves just as capable as Menuhin himself when the latter ventured into the viola repertoire. In Oistrakh’s case however there is added rarity value inasmuch as it’s said that this was only the second time in 40 years that he had played the viola in public.
We’re fortunate that quite a bit of footage of Oistrakh has survived, but these three items are making their first commercial DVD release. The Bach was recorded at the Royal Festival Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the young, bequiffed Colin Davis. The director clearly had a Plan with a capital ‘P’ for this, which was to pretend that the hall didn’t exist and to concentrate on a close-up of band and soloists so as to preserve the intimacy of the performance and indeed the piece. Apart from a panning shot at the very end you wouldn’t know that this was a big hall at all, or indeed any hall. The print is a touch grainy, but it’s serviceable, but there’s a brief blip at around 11:50. The shots are across the orchestra for tuttis and front on for the soloists. The two Oistrakhs play beautifully, and this is a performance to place beside the filmed encounter between David Oistrakh and Menuhin. Davis conducts with restraint. Trainspotters will have fun picking out Raymond Leppard at the harpsichord, Emanuel Hurwitz leading the band, and the bobbing, weaving unmistakably contorted figure of violist Cecil Aronowitz.
The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante was recorded in the Royal Albert Hall. Svelte and dapper, Menuhin must be using one of Boult’s ultra long batons – he’d taken conducting lessons from the older man. The print is less grainy here, though there’s a moment of deterioration at 41:20. The Oistrakhs play from the score, not surprising really given the unaccustomed instrument David was playing – though they both often play with eyes tightly shut. Camera angles are more conventional than in the Bach. It’s a splendid performance, warm, honest and direct, though the finale isn’t as buoyant as it could be, and once or twice Menuhin struggles with a downbeat. No danger of struggling with entries from the batonless Kondrashin, master accompanist. He’s fascinating to watch, a sort of Italian traffic policeman in gesture, though without the preening. His direction is muscular, intense, unambiguous, though not quite the kind of thing Boult would have admired, no doubt. Oistrakh serves up his predictable late-period Brahms performance, powerful, strong boned, with generous vibrato. It’s very similar to his studio recording with Klemperer, and wonderful to witness. One amusing detail is the wind player who keeps constantly licking and re-licking his reed during the oboist’s solo in the slow movement. If I’d been the oboe principal I’d have killed him. Fortunately sang froid reigned in the Moscow Philharmonic.
Despite some occasional imperfections in the prints and the variable quality of the picture – remarkable how variable things could be in the early 1960s in that respect – admirers of string players will warm to this DVD, and to the estimable performances preserved here.