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Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, April 2007
With this disc, Naxos restores to the catalogue a marvellous set of performances from this magnificent violinist. As the blurb on the back of the CD proudly proclaims, “This edition of the first American recordings by the great Ukrainian violinist, David Oistrakh, takes us back to a golden age. Made in one astonishingly long burst of creativity on Christmas Eve 1955, they demonstrate a legendary violinist at his absolute peak”. Quite so. More than that, this disc offers listeners a snap shot of Oistrakh in concertos from three periods, starting with the Baroque, and moving through the Classical to the Romantic, and excelling in all three.

The Bach E Major receives a gorgeous performance here, in the first of Oistrakh's three commercial recordings of the piece. (Alas, I have not heard and cannot compare his 1959 recording with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai.) Oistrakh is lighter-hearted here than in his 1962 stereo remake with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon (447 427-2). He is also a shade quicker in each movement in this earlier recording. His tone here is full and warm and though the Philadelphia Orchestra is not immune from tuning problems, their support is warmly sympathetic. This is a smiling reading, though the second movement is touched by a sense of tragic intensity. This recording was first released on Columbia ML 5087, along with Vivaldi's A Minor Double Concerto, which Oistrakh and Isaac Stern recorded at the very end of the same Christmas Eve sessions in a terrible edition. Anyone who wishes to hear that performance can do so here.

This recording of Mozart's fourth violin concerto is the first of Oistrakh's two commercial recordings. The other recording, with Oistrakh directing the Berlin Philharmonic from his violin, dates from 15 years later (EMI 7243 5 74578 2 8). As much as I love the later recording, this earlier account has a brightness and sense of fun that sometimes is missing in the stereo remake. The precision of Oistrakh's bowing here and his range of tone colour he draws from his instrument make this 1955 recording one to treasure. Though the orchestra is definitely balanced behind the soloist, Ormandy coaxes some lovely sounds from his band, especially in the second movement. As in his later recording, Oistrakh uses the cadenzas by the 19th Century virtuoso, Ferdinand David, and he plays them – and indeed the whole concerto – with taste, sensitivity and a rapt sense of beauty.

The recording of the Mendelssohn concerto that closes the disc is the second of Oistrakh's two commercial recordings. His first was made in 1949 with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Kondrashin, a performance which has done the rounds of labels. I first acquired it on a Vox LP, and it has been re-released most recently by Brilliant Classics in their Oistrakh concerto box. This performance is very similar in conception to that earlier one, though the violinist is a touch quicker in the Soviet account. There is not much to choose between the two recordings interpretatively, and Oistrakh is in fine fettle in both. When it comes to sound, though, this recording is the clear winner. He is closely recorded in the Soviet recording and though his powerful tone penetrates the gauzy atmosphere and Kondrashin extracts some sensitive wind playing from his orchestra, the soupy acoustic takes some of the edge off the performance. No such complaints here. Oistrakh's violin is vividly caught and Ormandy's orchestra is warmer and creamier. The Mendelssohn concerto was never the signature work for Oistrakh that the Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos were, but his playing here is superb: full-blooded and impassioned, but ever so stylish. And, oh, that tone!

Mark Obert-Thorn has remastered his source material with care, achieving a lovely warmth and bloom, and a realistic presence that more than offsets a little hiss in the background. Listening to Oistrakh's gorgeous playing in such beautifully restored sound, it is easy to forget that these recordings are 52 years old.

Oistrakh's admirers will definitely want this disc. Anyone who cares about great violin playing should be queuing up too.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Over the years I have raved about the latest violin virtuoso to arrive on the scene, but I always find myself returning to my David Oistrakh recording whenever I want to hear impeccable good taste. Maybe today we look at his Bach through critical eyes accustomed to the newly arrived period instrument performances. That would make his tone just a little too rounded, the Philadelphia's contribution a little heavy handed and the slow movement and finale a mite ponderous, phrases rounded off with a degree of rubato that has become an anachronism. By contrast the Mozart account is sprightly, Oistrakh lightening his tone, his view one of considerable happiness, with the cadenza in the finale his one moment of outgoing virtuosity. But it is the Mendelssohn that remains one of Oistrakh's great achievements, the sheer dexterity masking the use of fast tempos, the sprint to the end of the first movement exciting but never breathless. There is, of course, the honeyed tone to the slow movement, his big approach to the finale in keeping with the overall shape of his performance. All three concertos were recorded on Christmas Eve in 1955, the great violinist receiving for the first time the sound quality that did is playing justice. The orchestra was unstinting in support, Ormandy moving perfectly in accord with the soloist. On this present reissue the source material is less than ideal in the Bach, but afterwards improves significantly to a most pleasing sound.

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