Nurtured through his training by key figures of the Soviet system Boris Kuznetsov and David Oistrakh, Oleg Kagan emerged to win several important competitions in his twenties and develop a highly eclectic repertoire. His particular interests—contemporary Russian music, as well as Hindemith, Messiaen and the Berg Violin Concerto—were fortunately all documented on record before his untimely death from cancer aged just forty three. With Leonid Kogan, Tatiana Grindenko, Alfred Schnittke and others he was involved in performances of music deemed ‘un-Soviet’ by the Ministry of Culture, often in remote locations. In more mainstream repertoire Kagan’s collaborations with Sviatoslav Richter and Natalia Gutman were especially well received.
A keen exponent of Mozart, Kagan recorded a rich and thoughtful performance of the K. 378 Sonata in 1974 that also testifies to Richter’s chamber music prowess, accompanying and inter-weaving with Kagan in a consummately sensitive manner. The duo also recorded Brahms’s Op. 78 Sonata eleven years later, but this a less unified performance with a ponderous slow movement.
Kagan and Vassily Lobanov recorded all of Tchaikovsky’s violin and piano works at Finland’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in 1989, of which the Op. 42 Souvenir d’un lieu cher stands out. The earliest recording of the third piece (‘Mélodie’) was by the originator of much modern Russian violin practice, Leopold Auer, in 1920. Kagan follows suit with careful consideration: a constant but not excessive vibrato but, of course, no discernible portamenti, which means that Tchaikovsky’s regular widely-spaced leaps make less sense than they would have done in a performance of his own time. Nonetheless, there is lightness in Kagan’s ‘Mélodie’ with some quasi-flautando bowing, suitably contrasted with a tidy and percussive ‘Scherzo’.
In twentieth-century music Kagan excels on record. This includes the Sibelius Violin Concerto (live at the 1965 Sibelius Competition) which testifies to conventions of the time, being rather fast, somewhat inflexible in tempo and yet tightly-wound and restless—the finale is especially exhilarating. Kagan’s famous 1985 Berg Concerto recording exhibits his well-known love for this work. There is an aptly distant quality to the opening with a delicacy of texture from both Kagan and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, rendering the nightmarishly Expressionist gestures later in the movement even more effective and arresting. The drama at the opening of the second movement is highlighted by Kagan’s expressive manipulations of tone, such as a degree of extempore sul ponticello. This sympathy with compositional nuance is mirrored in his performance of Szymanovsky’s Mythes (1982), whilst his 1984 Quatuor pour le fin du temps (from the 1984 Kuhmo Festival) shows a certain vulnerability where appropriate, even if some of Kagan’s rather wide vibrati on accentual notes constitute gestures of saccharine decadence in a work of such astringent and esoteric aspirations.
Although Kagan’s basic sound world seems unremarkable from today’s perspective, it is the energy and vitality he brought to performances of twentieth-century music that will be missed the most, in a tragically curtailed career.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)