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Memories of Violinist David Oistrakh

David Oistrakh (1908-1974), the great Soviet violinist of the post-World War II era, has been misrepresented even by some of his staunchest admirers as being a “sensational” artist: a dramatic powerhouse of the old school, a purveyor of throbbing vibrato and the expressive devices of earlier times.

Listening again to some of his Soviet Melodiya recordings, currently available here on the French Chant du Monde label--the “currently” refers to the fact that no one is certain who has the marketing rights to Melodiya’s catalogue outside the Soviet Union--refutes any notion of Oistrakh the hyper-Romantic.

Just try, and you must, Oistrakh’s interpretations of three attractive, underrated 20th-Century concertos: the First Concerto of Bartok, Hindemith’s 1939 Concerto, and the First Concerto of Karol Szymanowski (Chant du Monde 278 941).

The Bartok and Szymanowski are, each in its way, post-Romantic creations that invite crooning and swooning, which Oistrakh resists. He presents, rather, a quite astonishing range of color and emotion while keeping his tone light and clear and maintaining rhythmic momentum in even the slowest and/or most convoluted passages.

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The Hindemith Concerto may be the most likable creation of the tough-guy composer of all that academic music no one really wants to hear, and Oistrakh’s warm, agile reading exposes Hindemith’s suppressed Romanticism without making it the point of the work.

The violinist has the benefit of masterful support throughout: from Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Radio Symphony in Bartok and Hindemith, from Kurt Sanderling and the Leningrad Symphony in Szymanowski.

Sonically, these circa 1960 Moscow recordings aren’t much: strident in the upper register of the massed violins and dense in the louder tuttis. But if it’s Oistrakh you want, this is the real, incomparable thing.

Oistrakh is undermined by pianist Lev Oborin in a 1957 Moscow studio recording of the Franck A-major Sonata (Chant du Monde 278 944). Where in a later, live edition of the same work (278 885) Oistrakh enjoyed the perfectly attuned collaboration of Sviatoslav Richter, Oborin indulges in flights of rhythmic fancy that disregard his colleague’s--and Franck’s-- needs.

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On the same CD, however, Frida Bauer proves the perfect teammate in stylish, deeply satisfying accounts of the Ravel and Debussy duo-sonatas. These are the same 1964 studio performances available in Philips’ Legendary Classics series, but without Philips’ misguided sonic prettification.

Lydia Mordkovitch studied with Oistrakh at the Moscow Conservatory from 1968 to 1970, working with him on the two Shostakovich concertos, both dedicated to Oistrakh, which she has recorded with conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos 8820).

Whether she is really as lush-toned a fiddler as this very model of a contemporary recording would suggest cannot be determined by one who hasn’t heard her live. What is clear is that she is an artist of lively dramatic instincts and vast technical resources.

Mordkovitch projects the First Concerto, the more interesting of the two, with unflagging command of both the brooding tension of its first three movements and the fiery energy released in its frisky-devilish finale.

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Energy is a quality that also informs the playing of Kyung-Wha Chung, with her bright, intense, fast-vibrato tone. For her latest recording she has formed a partnership with pianist Krystian Zimerman (Deutsche Grammophon 427 617) and the two play the living daylights--that’s intended as praise--out of the young Richard Strauss’ gorgeously overheated Sonata in E-flat.

The coupling, Respighi’s B-minor Sonata, also aims at the ecstatic but succeeds only in frantic groping toward that end, while picking up, without assimilating, bits of Brahms and Strauss along its turgid way. Chung’s playing isn’t as clean here as in the Strauss, nor does she make us forget the sheer joy of conquering the work’s technical hazards that made the old Heifetz recording one of those treasurable great performances of rotten music.

The Respighi seems even more expendable in the sober, labored performance by violinist Josef Suk and pianist Josef Hala. But the same program (Supraphon 110710, mid-price) offers an elegant, mobile reading of the Franck A major and a dazzling one of the neglected and altogether superb Sonata by Francis Poulenc, where Suk’s fast, tight vibrato and upper-register brilliance are employed to ideal effect. The pianist in both is Jan Panenka, a strong, sympathetic partner.


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