Orchestras attack Bruckner monsters


February 20, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor (London 433 318-2). Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Riccardo Chailly, conductor (London 433 819-2).

It seems only yesterday that the giant symphonies of Bruckner were the Fafnirs of the repertory -- monsters who frightened away uncomprehending conductors (except for such initiates as Wilhelm Furtwanger and Eugen Jochum), audiences and record companies. Things have changed so much that a major label like London is currently pursuing two different cycles.

This Fifth Symphony is the best Bruckner that Dohnanyi has yet committed to disc in his cycle with the great Cleveland. He has a better grasp of the composer's grand gestures than before, a little more flexibility -- he does not seem as afraid of confronting the seismic shifts in the music's tectonic places -- and he shows more heart. The playing of the orchestra, which began performing Bruckner in the '60s under George Szell, is magnificent.

But good as it is, the Dohnanyi-Clevelend performance cannot compete with the Chailly-Concertgebouw. It is not simply that the great Amsterdam orchestra has a much older Bruckner tradition than the Cleveland's. Chailly leads the music in a manner grander, more mysterious and more good-humored than Dohnanyi's.

Beethoven, Sonata No. 9 ("Kreutzer") for violin and piano, Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano, Franck Sonata for violin and piano, performed by David Oistrakh, violin, and Lev Oborin, piano; Ysaye Sonata No. 3 ("Ballade") for solo violin and Leclair Sonata for solo violin, performed by Oistrakh, violin; encore pieces by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Glazunov, and Khachaturian, performed by Oistrakh, violin, and Vladimir Yampolsky, piano (Vanguard Classics OVC 4080/2).

This three-CD set collects Oistrakh's first recordings in the West, made in Paris in 1953 and 1954 on his first trips outside the Soviet bloc. Until these records -- originally issued on three Vanguard LPs -- the legendary violinist's reputation was based on hearsay from visitors returning from the former Soviet Union and upon primitive-sounding pirates of Russian recordings. These records revealed a violinist who was technically on a par with Jascha Heifetz, who had a robust tone that never sounded harsh or forced, and whose musicality had a warm humanity that never approached sentimentality.

Of these performances, only the encore performances have ever been reissued (on a Chant du Monde disc). It's good to have the others back. The violinist went on to record each of these pieces several times. But he never performed them better. And Oistrakh's violinistic mastery -- captured here while he was still in his middle 40s -- was at the peak of its perfection.

Although he remained the world's preeminent violinist until his death in 1974, Oistrakh (unlike other prominent fiddle players) never behaved like a star -- musically or otherwise. He was a true collaborator who liked to work with good pianists who challenged him. His longtime friend, Oborin (his favorite sonata partner until Oborin's alcoholism robbed him of his facility), was a much cooler player than his successors, Richter and Frieda Bauer. These Prokofiev and Franck performances are not as superheated as those about 15 years later with Richter, but they are sensitive, exciting and masterly in their control of the music's shape.

In Beethoven's "Kreutzer," Oistrakh and Oborin produced one of the music's greatest performances (matched only by the Heifetz-Moiseiwitsch and Szigeti-Bartok versions); it is both ferocious and noble. Oistrakh "owned" the Ysaye "Ballade" -- no one else played it with such fervor and technical control. The encores alone are worth the price of this mid-priced set. The Rachmaninoff "Vocalise," for example, is spun out at a heartbreakingly slow tempo that never distorts the piece and will leave you wishing only that it did not have to end.

Medtner, "Knight Errant" and "Russian Round Dance," Rachmaninoff, Suite No. 2, "Russian Rhapsody" and "Symphonic Dances," performed by Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko, pianos (Hyperion LDA 66654).

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