One way of getting to grips with Leonid Kogan’s Bach Concertos is to acquire Testament’s restoration, which includes his 1955 recording, with the Philharmonia String Orchestra under Otto Ackermann, of the E major concerto, coupled with the Double Violin Concerto where his partner is Elizaveta Gilels [SBT1223]. If you prefer a more up-to-date perspective then you could always turn to this Melodiya release which includes the same two concertos and adds that of Alban Berg.
Kogan is the nominal director of the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra Soloists Ensemble (E major) and the Moscow Radio Symphony in the Double. His clean-cut and vitalising account of the former is not dissimilar to the earlier EMI account. His lines are clean, unsentimentalised and never indulgent either in respect of vibrato or tempo. His colleague David Oistrakh tended to be heavier in Bach. Tempi are well judged and whilst the slow movement is taken at a more relaxed tempo than we’d often find today, it’s not in any way bloated; rather the phrases are buoyant and sustained. The comparisons to be made between Kogan and his son Pavel, on the one hand, and the two Oistrakhs, David and Igor, on the other in the Concerto for two violins are instructive. The Oistrakhs are the more affecting and expressive, their vibratos heavier and their lines singing more richly. The two Kogans – as had been the case with Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels, Emil’s sister and Kogan’s wife – are spruce and rhythmically supple, the exchanges confiding and eloquent. This later recording makes a fine pairing with their earlier LP performance in London. And both the Kogans and the Oistrakhs offer thoroughly nuanced and effective recordings in this work.
Given that Berg quotes Bach in his concerto, the conjunction of the two composers is not wholly inappropriate. There is a suggestion in the booklet notes that Kogan sugared the Bergian pill for Russian audiences, somewhat romanticising his tone the better to get the work across. He certainly gave the first performances of the work in Russia. Whatever the truth of the matter – and to me his playing sounds consonant with his playing of the totality of his repertoire – the approach is expressive but controlled in a recorded perspective that allows the solo line quite some aural prominence – more, actually, than is ideal. Oistrakh, famously, didn’t record the work or much it play – if at all. Rather like those other exclusion zones – Heifetz only in Prokofiev’s Second Concerto, Szigeti only in his First – it seems that Kogan was deemed more temperamentally and tonally attuned to the Berg.
Despite the facial severity, Kogan remained an eloquently expressive player, sometimes indeed a little understated. We’re fortunate to be able to choose – or not choose, one can take both – from two different Bach recordings. This was his own studio Berg.
Masterwork Index: Bach violin concertos