The renowned David Oistrakh (1908-1974) was born David Fyodorovich Oistrakh. He began learning to play the violin with Pyotr Stoliarsky in Odessa, making his debut at the age of six. When asked about when he started playing the violin Oistrakh replied: ‘However hard I try, I can’t recall ever having been without a violin during my childhood. I was three and a half when my father brought home a toy violin for me. As I played it I imagined I was a street violinist, a poor man’s occupation that was widespread in Odessa at the time. But I could not imagine any greater happiness.’ This joy and warmth is intelligently translated in these fine recordings. After studying at the Odessa Conservatory (1923-6), he appeared as soloist in Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in Kiev in 1927. Over the next few decades he would be the dedicatee of the violin concertos by Shostakovichand Khachaturian.
Originating from the Latin words ‘conserere’ (to weave) and ‘certamen’ (competition), one can see how the concerto which consists of two parts (the soloist and orchestra) intertwine and jostle. The effect is heightened and compounded when Oistrakh joins with Igor Oistrakh and Isaac Stern in the Vivaldi.
In 1711 Estienne Roger published Antonio Vivaldi’s first set of concertos entitled ‘L’estro armonico’. Corelli was certainly an influence to the youngPrete Rosso, but in his lighter Venetian style, Vivaldi moved away from the sometimes cumbersome Roman model established by Corelli. As the dominant instrumental genre, the concerto grosso was influenced by the stunning arias of the opera seria and by composers such as Torelli, Tomaso, Albinoni and Vivaldi. For them the violin took centre-stage and sang in a more commanding way.
The 1956 recording of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso with Stern is entirely different to the 1957 recording with Igor Oistrakh. Both feature on this CD as intriguing points of comparison. The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester conducted by Konwitschny has a particularly unpretentious, modest sound. The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy has a much more robust and full-bodied sound, due in part to the better recording quality. In the 1956 version, which was actually recorded on Christmas Eve in 1955, the two violinists play with conviction and produce a warming timbre. In comparison, the 1957 recording sounds muted. The second movement (Larghetto e spiritoso), has a distant, nostalgic feeling with the Oistrakhs (father and son), With Stern there is greater definition and a sense of sustained longing prevails. With more pronounced détaché traîné between each bow-change on the Oistrakh-Stern recording, Vivaldi’s disconsolate A minor mood seems more authentic. However, whilst the sound quality and performance of the Oistrakh-Stern recording is most commendable, Sam Franko’s editing decision to replace the ending with something from a completely different work is slightly bemusing. In the slow movement, Vivaldi’s operatic arioso-inspired sarabande and passacaglia are played with impeccable lyricism. Oistrakh’s characteristically seamless bow-changes and slow vibrato create a milky and rich sound.
Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043 is one of his most famous works. The ‘Bach Double’ was composed between 1717 and 1723 when he was the Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Köthen in Germany. Following a fugal style and with a great deal of counterpoint, this work communicates as a dialogue between two lovers. At once enamoured and enraged it tests the expressiveness of the two violinists. This recording exhibits Oistrakh’s exacting intonation and natural delivery, particularly throughout the twists and turns of the finale.
Prefiguring the more traditional concerto sound that developed in the following century, Bach’s first and second violin concertos are masterfully played by Oistrakh.
Oistrakh felt that a violinist's essence was communicated through clever and subtle use of the bow, and not through overly expressive use of vibrato. Nowhere is this more evident than in the silver tones of the Andante to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor. With a remarkably relaxed, flexible right arm, Oistrakh produces a nuanced, delicate and controlled sound. With a great dynamic range and fully rounded projection this is one of the finest recordings of Bach’s infamous first concerto.
Unlike Mozart’s showmanship concertos, Bach’s concertos consist of an involved and intricate dialogue between orchestra and soloist. Sensitive to this dynamic, Oistrakh positions himself as primus inter pares and never unnecessarily elbows the orchestra out of the way to demonstrate flair or virtuosity. In the Violin Concerto in E major Oistrakh adds to the texture rather than stubbornly overshadowing the orchestra. N. Forkel, Bach's original biographer, describes the triumphant singing of the first and last movements as being ‘full of an unconquerable joy of life’. Contrastingly, beginning with a haunting bass line which is repeated throughout, the Adagio to the second concerto is best described as ‘sfumato’ in style. Defining this method of painting in his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote that it appears ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane’. Indeed, in this recording all sounds converge resulting in an exhale of emotion which evaporates like smoke, leaving a transfixing ambience in its wake.
Masterwork Index: Bach violin concertos