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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op. 99 (1947-48, rev. 1955) [36:29]
Violin Concerto No 2 in C Sharp minor, Op. 129 (1967) [29:45]
Suite from the film Alone, Op. 26 (1931) [12:33]
David Oistrakh (violin)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky (op. 99)
Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (op. 129)
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (op.26)
rec. 1956, Leningrad (op. 99); 1967, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory (op. 129); 1970 Studio 1, Moscow Radio (op.26)
ALTO ALC1337 [79:00]

Not long ago I reviewed a recording of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto by Frank Peter Zimmermann in which he went back to the composer’s original manuscript – even to the extent that the recording carried the original opus number, Op 77. Seeking to make comparisons with Shostakovich’s final thoughts on the work, to which he allotted the fresh catalogue number Op 99, I was embarrassed to discover that I didn’t have in my collection a recording by David Oistrakh, the dedicatee of the concerto. By happy chance Alto have now issued the premiere recording of the concerto which has enabled me to plug that gap in my collection. I’ve heard the Oistrakh recording before but the opportunity for more detailed appreciation of it was not to be missed.

The key premise of Zimmermann’s recording was that the original version of the concerto contained some different bowings and, crucially, some different, swifter metronome markings, primarily in the first and third movements. In the revision of 1955, into which Oistrakh provided significant input, the basic speeds of those two movements were broadened significantly and as a result this Oistrakh recording, made very soon after the 1955 first performance, plays for almost exactly five minutes longer than the Zimmermann version.

I don’t resile from my admiration for the Zimmermann recording which sheds fresh – or should I say original – light on this masterpiece. However, there’s no doubting that Oistrakh’s approach, which was the key to establishing the performance tradition of the concerto, is essential to an understanding of the music. The performers who are involved in this recording gave the first performance of the work in October 1955 so this recording, made the following year – in November 1956, I think – has a unique authority. The orchestral sound right at the start is somewhat muddy and although things improve the orchestral parts don’t get the clarity that one experiences with modern recordings. Oistrakh is pretty forwardly balanced and while ideally I’d prefer a better balance between soloist and orchestra we are considering here a sixty-year-old recording and overall the sound isn’t at all bad for its vintage. What matters most, though, is that this recording gives a vivid impression of Oistrakh’s uniquely intense way with the music. Sometimes he seems to be communing with himself, at other times he’s searingly eloquent; in every respect his playing is utterly compelling. The cadenza (around 8:00) is highly strung – no pun intended – and at times the sound of his violin is a bit harsh but that’s a function of the recording and balance.

I’m sure it’s interventionist engineering that results in the woodwind being almost as prominent as the soloist in the tart scherzo. Here the spiky music is strongly articulated by all the performers and we get the opportunity to admire Oistrakh’s steely virtuosity. The third movement is a passacaglia. This was a favourite form for Shostakovich and I’m inclined to think that this movement is the greatest example of a passacaglia in his output. There’s real foreboding in the way that the Leningrad Phil begin the movement. Throughout the concerto Mravinsky exercises a steely grip on the proceedings but nowhere more so than in this movement. Oistrakh is simply magnificent in this music; his playing is commanding and deeply felt yet despite the emotional intensity his tone is penetrating and strongly focussed. I rather think that this movement is even more eloquent than the first movement, especially when played like this. The cadenza (from 8:49) is no mere display opportunity; rather it’s a profound reflection on what has already been heard. Later it becomes more virtuosic as Shostakovich anticipates his finale and in that section the sparks really fly from Oistrakh’s bow. The finale is fast, furious and full of bite.

It’s true that the recording has its sonic limitations but these are not sufficient as to detract from the magnificence of the performance. This is a recording of the concerto that should be in every self-respecting Shostakovich collection.

Oistrakh gave the first performance of the First Concerto and it was dedicated to him. The composer paid him a similar compliment with the Second Concerto which he premiered with Kondrashin and the Moscow PSO at the end of September 1967.

Alto give the date of the recording of the Second Concerto as 1974 but I doubt this is correct. I’m as sure as I can be from sample comparisons that it’s the same recording that I have in a Melodiya set of the Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Kondrashin where it’s dated 1967 (review). Furthermore, Alto themselves have previously issued an Oistrakh/Kondrashin recording of the work, dating it from 1967 (review). Therefore I’m pretty confident that this present recording was made shortly after the first performance.

The Second Concerto is not quite on the same level of distinction as its predecessor but it’s still a very fine work. This time Shostakovich opted for a three-movement structure. Sonically this rather more recent recording is an advance on the recording of the First Concerto. Oistrakh is still well to the fore in the balance but I hear more space round his sound and that of the orchestra than was the case in the earlier recording. Oistrakh gives a very powerful performance of the first movement and receives fine support from Kondrashin whose orchestra is clearly committed to the cause. The cadenza (8:12-9:37) is not on the same scale as the cadenza in the First Concerto but it’s still a serious test of technique. Needless to say, Oistrakh despatches it with great assurance. The slow movement is a searching adagio and it’s music to which Oistrakh is ideally suited.

At the start of the finale there’s an exchange between the soloist and a muted horn. The two players here make it sound truly argumentative; one can almost imagine tongues being put out. The music which follows is bitterly sardonic and the edgy performance here is well-nigh ideal; the orchestral playing is razor-sharp. All the grotesquerie of the music is projected in a vinegary performance. Oistrakh’s account of this concerto is just as indispensable as is his traversal of its sibling.

As a filler we hear a three-movement suite from the music that Shostakovich wrote for the 1931 film Odna (Alone). This appears to be scored for woodwind, brass and percussion. The titles of the movements give little clue as to what is to follow. The first movement, March, starts off as a bright, brash march but within less than a minute we hear slower, dark and mysterious woodwind chords. Eventually these yield to a doleful cor anglais solo before a light and nimble woodwind dance. It’s only at the end that the march is reprised. Quite what all this illustrated in the film I don’t know. The second movement is a Largo but the music seems anything but that. There’s a good deal of work for perky woodwinds, for example, and then the woodwind section have a waltz episode before we revert to the opening material. The last movement, Allegretto, consists of a series of episodes, primarily in Shostakovich’s cheeky mode. The suite is well worth hearing and it is put across with relish by Rozhdestvensky and his players.

The recordings have been remastered by Paul Arden-Taylor. Assuming that the recording of the Second Concerto is indeed the 1967 version then I’d say he’s made the original Melodiya sound somewhat smoother and extracted more detail. All the transfers are good and James Murray’s notes are useful.

These are indispensable recordings of the Shostakovich violin concertos and it’s very convenient to have them together on one modestly priced CD.

John Quinn



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