Oistrakh recordings from 1954 reveal a violinist at the height of his powers

July 10, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, performed by David Oistrakh and the Stockholm Festival Orchestra, Sixten Ehrling conducting, Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D Minor, performed by Oistrakh and the Stockholm Festival Orchestra, Ehrling conducting (Testament SBT 1032): It is now more than 20 years since Oistrakh died during a visit to Amsterdam at the age of 66. His position as the greatest violinist to come out of Russia since the 1917 revolution remains unchallenged; of the great violinists of this about-to-be-concluded century, only Jascha Heifetz seriously rivals him in renown. It is somewhat incredible, then, that (because of World War II and the subsequent Cold War) listeners in the West had only about 20 years in which to hear Oistrakh.

Unfortunately, the recordings reissued tend to be those he made after the late 1950s and the beginnings of the stereo era. One says "unfortunately" with hesitation. Oistrakh was still perhaps the world's greatest violinist -- with a powerful tone of unmatched beauty, a technique that solved violinistic problems with ease and musical instincts that penetrated to the heart of the matter. But his earlier performances -- these 1954 accounts of Beethoven and Sibelius, superbly partnered by Ehrling with a fine orchestra, were the first commercial recordings Oistrakh made of concertos in the West -- show a somewhat different and perhaps greater violinist.

As he grew older, Oistrakh's tempos inevitably became slower and his enormous (though never forced) tone became slightly less secure. Both of these performances are to be preferred to the still remarkable ones the violinist was to record later. The Beethoven shows a violinist at the height of his powers, with a superb grasp of the structure of each movement and of the concerto as whole. Unlike some other players -- most notably Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigeti and Oistrakh's younger Soviet rival, Leonid Kogan -- the violinist stresses the serenity, rather than the depths, of the slow movement. And more successfully than any other performance known to this writer, Oistrakh -- with his strength of tone, security of rhythm and genial temperament -- keeps the final movement from becoming a letdown.

The Sibelius performance is simply phenomenal. Except for Heifetz's two recordings and an almost-impossible-to-find one by the little-known Julian Sitkovetsky, this is the most brilliant and intense Sibelius Concerto on records. Like Heifetz (and, except for Gidon Kremer, unlike today's violinists) Oistrakh plays the first and third movements exceptionally fast. His unerring rhythm sustains his choice of a swift tempo for the first movement and turns the final one into an unforgettably furious sonic maelstrom.

Glazunov, Violin Concerto in A Minor, performed by Julian Sitkovetsky and the Moscow Youth Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin conducting, Khachaturian, Violin Concerto in D Minor, performed Sitkovetsky and the Romanian Radio Orchestra, Niyazi conducting (Russian Disc RD CD 15 009): The release of this disc should make violin fanciers happy. Sitkovetsky -- if the name rings a bell, that is because he was the father of Dmitry Sitkovetsky, one of the best of the current generation of fiddlers -- should have succeeded Oistrakh as the greatest Soviet violinist. But Sitkovetsky, who was born in 1925, never had much luck.

He finished second in the 1952 Wieniawski Competition to the much inferior Igor Oistrakh, whose famous name -- he was David's son -- must have influenced the judges. Three years later, he finished second in Brussels to American violinist Berl Senofsky. Then, in 1958, the 32-year-old violinist died of lung cancer.

As in the case of the tragically foreshortened pianist Dinu Lipatti, who died of leukemia in 1951 at the age of 33, Sitkovetsky was one of those amazing musicians who reach profound maturity at an eerily early age and who seem able to turn everything they touch into gold. Sitkovetsky was an extraordinary Bach player -- his recording of the composer's D Minor Partita is among the best ever recorded -- and his recording of the Sibelius Concerto (with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Nikolai Anosov) ranks with those of Oistrakh and Heifetz.

This CD marks the first appearance in the West in more than 30 years of any recording by Sitkovetsky. The violinist's Glazunov Concerto was recorded in 1952 in impressively vibrant sound. The young violinist plays it with panache, freshness of spirit and feeling and variety of color that redeem it from saccharine sentimentality and challenge the version of the young Heifetz. The Khachaturian (which was recorded in acceptable sound at a live concert in 1954) was written for and dedicated to Oistrakh, who recorded it several times -- twice with the composer himself. Sitkovetsky performs it with a sense of impassioned conviction, power and beauty of tone that recall Oistrakh at his best.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear an excerpt from Khachaturian's Violin Concerto in D Minor, performed by Julian Sitkovetsky and the Romanian Radio Orchestra, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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