David Oistrakh’s recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Otto Klemperer is so great that it took years before EMI released this equally astonishing, later recording with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. My colleague Jed Distler, in reviewing this release, marginally preferred the Klemperer for its darker sonority and for Oistrakh’s slightly easier technique, but I tend to vacillate between the two. In both performances, Oistrakh has the work “in his fingers,” as it were, capturing all of the music’s passion, lyricism, and bravura. He left at least four recordings of it, after all, and it’s probably safe to say that no other violinist played it with such dedication and consistency over such a long career.
In theRead more earlier recording Klemperer of course was great, but Szell is no slouch either. Both performances are in fact quite similar, and against Klemperer’s typical gravitas, we must acknowledge Szell’s superior execution of the orchestral part, some of it, such as the vast woodwind solo at the start of the Adagio, notoriously difficult to play as well as the Cleveland musicians do here. As always with Szell, there is an edge and precision to the rhythm that creates great tension, even when the tempo isn’t notably quick. The passage leading up to Oistrakh’s first entry in the opening movement gives a good idea of the vigorous and trenchant approach to the music that characterizes the performance, and which seems quintessentially Brahmsian.
The coupling is also unusual for this work, and well worth hearing. Oistakh and pianist Vladimir Yampolsky deliver an excellent performance of the Third Violin Sonata marred only, as Jed Distler mentioned in his original review, by the fact that that engineers placed the very fine pianist an unusually safe distance from Oistrakh. He really didn’t need the accommodation, as his playing throughout is extremely secure and typically nuanced, whether in the first movement’s second subject or the soulful Adagio. In any case, the piece makes an ideal foil to the concerto, and serves as further evidence of Oistrakh’s sovereign command of Brahms’ idiom.
I can easily understand anyone who maintains a preference for the Klemperer recording, but the bottom line is that if you don’t have one of Oistrakh’s stereo versions then you really don’t know the Brahms Concerto. Either of them, plus Heifetz, essentially establish the interpretive parameters for a great performance of the work, and form the basis for any serious collection.