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Oistrakh rarities 850132
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David Oistrakh (violin)
Recorded Rarities from Melodiya
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata for solo Violin No 1 in G minor BWV 1001 [17:22]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E minor, op. 57 'Sonata Epica' (1935-38) [44.55]
Zara LEVINA (1906-1976)
Violin Sonata No.1 (1928) [15:32]
David Oistrakh (violin)
Alexander Goldenweiser (piano: Medtner): Zara Levina (piano: Levina)
rec. October 1947 (Bach): 1959 (Medtner): 1948 (Levina)
BIDDULPH 85013-2 [78:02]

‘Recorded Rarities from Melodiya’ runs the subtitle to this disc from Biddulph. This is tempting but as anyone who has surveyed it will acknowledge, aspects of Oistrakh’s recorded legacy – principally his non-commercial legacy – is in a certain amount of disarray. Attributions and misattributions seem to abound. The studio component, certainly that much covered by EMI or now Warner, is much better and has largely been multiply reissued. Where there are some gaps is in his Melodiya years and that’s what Biddulph addresses in part here.

It presents three recordings spanning the years 1947 to 1959. The earliest is his only recording of any of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas, the Sonata No 1 in G minor BWV 1001. Russian string players and solo Bach: it’s vexed question. Neither Oistrakh nor Kogan recorded much solo Bach, as Tully Potter notes in his fine booklet notes. Years later Rostropovich waited until his middle sixties to record the Cello Suites and the results were not always convincing. Intriguingly from diverse sources both Oistrakh and Rostropovich used almost precisely the same language to describe their dilemma when performing Bach. Potter quotes Oistrakh as seeking ‘the middle path’ with regard to questions of strictness and emotion. Rostropovich has been quoted as needing to take ‘a golden medium between a romantic, rhapsodic interpretation of Bach and scholastic aridity.’

I have always revered Oistrakh’s performances of Bach concertos; performance practice doesn’t come into it and the recordings stand for what they are, which is themselves. I have slightly less reverence for this solo Sonata, though. There’s a slightly awkward accommodation of its demands. He tends to take the music in discrete paragraphs rather than playing ‘through’. One feels that as a result lines are somewhat broken, and the inevitable romanticisation, which is largely a function both of his vibrato and phrasing, conspires to deny the music’s dance imperatives. Let there be no misunderstanding; this is beautiful violin playing but I wonder if this sole example is because he recognised his ambiguities in this repertoire, or because market forces didn’t clamour for his solo Bach as it did for other, more obviously nationalistic repertoire.

For many years the only violinists to have recorded Medtner’s Third Sonata, the 'Sonata Epica’, were Oistrakh, Feigin, and Labko. It had been premiered by the composer and one of his most eminent exponents in Britain, where Medtner lived, the violinist Arthur Catterall. At 45 minutes it certainly is Epica and its performance in 1959 is certainly the ideal. The elasticity and fluctuating nature of the writing is perfectly expressed as is the generation of swung rhythms in the scherzo. Oistrakh’s vibrato hadn’t yet widened as it was later to do from the early 60s onwards and his control is nearly matched by that of the great pianist Alexander Goldenweiser, still able to negotiate much of Medtner’s diffuse writing despite being in his 80s. We’re fortunate that this recording of the pair exists as Goldenweiser was to die in 1961.

Finally, there’s the Crimean composer and Miaskovsky student Zara Levina’s 1928 Sonata. Her grandson, incidentally, is Alexander Malnikov. This crisp three-movement sonata features a spruce opening, an ardent Andante – by some way the longest movement and work’s centre of gravity - and a rather Prokofiev-like finale, which would have been stylistically welcome to Oistrakh. Levina accompanies with decisive touch. The 1948 recordings is slightly unkind to Oistrakh’s tone, though, which emerges as unusually steely, certainly in comparison with the companion works.

The Bach has been reissued in a Brilliant Box and the Medtner is on St Laurent Studio YSL 0028 33, as the first volume in its Oistrakh edition. I’ve not heard it and must note that there is no coupling which makes for a short-measure CD. This label’s Volume 13 of the edition does attempt to scrutinise his 1937-49 Melodiyas and includes some hard-to-find items, though it also bulks the disc with its transfer of Miaskovsky’s Concerto: right time frame but a celebrated recording that has seen several reissues on CD. So, whilst the same label has disinterred Rakov’s First Sonata, I’m not sure who has transferred the same composer’s Concerto with the composer conducting; the Kondrashin conducted version has been reissued. Similarly - one example among many – has anyone remastered Yuri Abramovich Levitin’s Sonata, where, as in the case of Zara Levina, the composer accompanies Oistrakh?

Transfers are sympathetic and two photographs of the youthful violinist have been provided by his grandson, Valery Oistrakh.

I like what Biddulph has done here but there’s a great deal to be done to present Oistrakh’s pre-war and immediate post-war Russian discography in a comprehensive and structured way. It contains rare repertoire in performances made when the violinist was in his 30s and 40s and at the height of his powers.

Jonathan Woolf

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