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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 (1916) [23:52]
Violin Sonata in D minor Op. 9 (1904) [20:16]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Violin Concerto (1939) [29:08]
David Oistrakh (violin)
Vladimir Yampolsky (piano)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (Szymanowski concerto)
London Symphony Orchestra/Paul Hindemith (Hindemith)
rec. 1961 (Szymanowski concerto), 1956 (sonata), 1962 (Hindemith); venues not stated
ALTO ALC1355 [73:48]

How times have changed. When these recordings were made, Hindemith had long moved from being an enfant terrible to an elder statesman of the musical world, while Szymanowski was a rank outsider. The same was true of these recordings: the Szymanowski concerto was available only rarely and with difficulty as an import, while the Hindemith was a mainstay of the Decca catalogue for years. Now their positions have almost reversed: the Szymanowski concertos have become repertory works, with numerous recordings, while Hindemith has become a connoisseur’s composer.

I had long known of these recordings by Oistrakh but had never previously actually heard them. The Szymanowski is one of the most luscious works from his impressionistic-orientalising period which also gave us the Mythes for violin and piano, the third symphony and the opera King Roger. I was immediately struck by Oistrakh’s easy and natural phrasing of the soaring violin line, in which he observes all the very complicated instructions of the composer but makes it sound completely spontaneous. His technique is absolutely immaculate, with the very high solo line – at one point it goes up to F sharp in altissimo – always in tune and not pressing on the sharp side of the note, the double and triple stops securely taken and the harmonics precise. One would not have expected Sanderling to conduct this work: I associate him more with Brahms and Shostakovich, and his view of the orchestral part is less dreamy and more pungent than usual, with the woodwind lines in particular clearly etched. This is a full-blooded performance. If I have a criticism it would be that it is possibly too consistently intense, but I would not press this: it is a classic reading.

The Szymanowski violin sonata which comes between the two concertos is an early work and not really characteristic. The first movement is conventionally effective in a rather derivative way and Yampolsky does an admirably modest job in keeping down the massive piano writing to let the violin through. The slow movement is lyrical and one can hear anticipations of Szymanowski’s later ecstatic manner. The finale is stormy, owing something to the finale of Brahms’s D minor violin sonata. Oistrakh and Yampolsky give a powerful performance, making the most of this work.

The Hindemith, his only full scale violin concerto, is full of that strange sweet and sour acrid melancholy characteristic of his best music and is a rewarding work. It is a complete contrast to Szymanowski, from a composer whose work was a reaction against that kind of sultry impressionism. As well as his kind of lyricism it also has Hindemith’s motor rhythms, charged here with an infectious skip and bounce by Oistrakh. The slow movement has some of the serenity of Nobilissima Visione and parts of Mathis der Maler, and in it Oistrakh refines his tone down to a whisper to produce a probing, meditative line. The finale is dance-like, with a cadenza in the middle of it. At times it turns into a perpetuum mobile before ending with a flourish. The composer obviously knows how his own work should go, and though he had no particular reputation as a conductor, does a good job.

I have not heard the originals but I suspect that Paul Arden-Taylor has done a heroic job in cleaning up the original recordings, from three different sources. The Szymanowski concerto in particular is wonderfully clear and free of background noise. The sonata is a bit thin and shallow, but perfectly listenable. Only the Hindemith seems at times a bit congested, which is odd as it is a Decca recording from the golden years. But these are small quibbles. It is Oistrakh’s sovereign command which dominates, and these are classic recordings. I don’t think Oistrakh ever played or recorded the Szymanowski second concerto but he certainly did play his Mythes: they are on Testament SBT 1442, which should be the collector’s next stop.

Stephen Barber



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