Notes and Editorial Reviews
David Oistrakh (vn); Kirill Kondrashin, cond; Moscow RSO
MELODIYA 0011, mono (LP: 38:43) Limited Edition #411
They’re b-a-c-k! LPs, that is. Not that they were ever gone, really. The used LP business has flourished and has been a lucrative one for many independent record shops and web-based retailers. Moreover, a very small number of high-end, specialty audio labs have continued to produce a few brand new high-quality vinyl records per year. It has only been fairly recently, though,
that certain labels, particularly those known for their archives of older recordings with some historical interest, have begun making new collectible LP pressings on 180-gram, heavy-duty, virgin vinyl. The Russian Melodiya label is one of them, and here we have one of its “Limited Edition” releases, a recording of a 1952 performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh with Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra.
This momentary vinyl revival, if that’s what it is, might strike one as a desperate and doomed attempt to cling to a nostalgically glorified past at a time when even CD and its physical spawn—DVD, SACD, DVD-A, and Blu-ray—are rapidly becoming passé in favor of non-embraceable, non-material means of obtaining music through downloading and streaming technologies. But history tells us that some of the highest-quality and most elegantly appointed—not to mention most expensive—horse-drawn carriages were still being made after Henry Ford’s horseless carriages came rolling off the assembly line. When it comes to recorded music, there will always be a few collectors who appreciate holding in their hands a beautifully made LP album.
This Melodiya release is for them, but it’s not for everyone, for the simple reason that it was long ago transferred to CD on this same label, and on Chant du Monde, where it was coupled with Oistrakh and Kondrashin’s same vintage Dvo?ák Violin Concerto, and in which format it was reviewed by David K. Nelson in 15:3. It can still be purchased as an import for under $20 at Amazon, or, for the privilege of holding in your hands a beautifully made LP album containing the same performance of the Brahms, you can pay double, over $40, for half the amount of music.
David Oistrakh recorded the Brahms Concerto some 15 times—it was a favorite of his—and back in 28:4, reviewing a live recording of a 1961 performance of the piece with Antonio Pedrotti and the Czech Philharmonic, I presented a table of all the violinist’s known Brahms Concerto recordings. This 1952 performance on the current recording was one of two by Oistrakh from that year, the other being with Hermann Abendroth and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, available on a Tahra CD. These are Oistrakh’s earliest recordings of the Brahms I know of.
Incidentally, I should probably mention at this point that the original Melodiya release of this performance with Kondrashin identified the orchestra as the USSR Large Radio Symphony Orchestra. At the time, it was also known as the USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio and Television. It was originally founded in 1930, however, as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, and that is how Melodiya has identified it on this LP release. But even that is not its most recent name, for upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1993, the Russian Ministry of Culture renamed it the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio. To the best of my knowledge, all of these various names refer to the same ensemble.
As for the performance, there’s a reason David Oistrakh was and is considered still one of the great violin virtuosos of the 20th century. With quicksilver fingering technique, solid bowing, and rhythmic acuity that compared to Milstein’s, he projected a vibrant, voluminous tone that compared to Elman’s. And as I said in my above-cited review, Oistrakh’s approach to the Brahms Concerto remained fairly consistent over the years; between this 1952 performance at 38:43, to his best-known and most widely circulated 1969 recording with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at 39:29, Oistrakh’s timing slowed by only 46 seconds. Of course, there were anomalies in between, like his 1960 performance with Klemperer and the French National Orchestra, which timed out at 40:52, a variance I attribute to the conductor’s penchant for slower tempos. But Oistrakh’s Brahms is a fairly constant and stable quantity, and this performance under Kondrashin is as good a reading of the piece as any by Oistrakh I’ve heard.
That said, the recording is not ideal. I haven’t heard the CD transfer, so I don’t know if the problem has been corrected, though I doubt it because I don’t think it’s the kind of problem that can be fixed. Oistrakh’s violin sounds like it was recorded separately and then spliced into the orchestral track, the result of which is to amplify the soloist to the point where he is as loud as, and sometimes louder than, the orchestra. In other words, this is not a recording with a natural-sounding balance, but one in which the solo violin often overpowers the orchestra’s players, not an easy thing to accomplish if you’re familiar with the piece and with Brahms’s heavy scoring.
Other than that I have no complaints, and it’s a special treat to listen to such a finely produced LP with such silent surfaces, tight bass, and nary a single click, tick, or pop. If you still have a decent turntable in good working order on which you can appreciate this, and you have the deep pockets to afford it, I’d say go for it, if for no other reason than for the sake of having an historical artifact you can hold in your hands and show to your great-grandkids. If it’s just Oistrakh playing the Brahms in this particular performance that interests you, I’d tell you to buy it on CD. And if it’s just Oistrakh playing the Brahms in general that interests you, I’d suggest going with the Szell. Whether it’s his best performance of the piece or not is debatable, but it’s probably his best recording of it.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 77 by Johannes Brahms
David Oistrakh (Violin)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1878; Austria
Date of Recording: 1952
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