If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Man Violin

The Man Violin

“However hard I try, I can’t recall ever having been without a violin during my childhood. I was three and a half when my father brought home a toy violin for me. As I played it I imagined I was a street violinist, a poor man’s occupation that was widespread in Odessa at the time. But I could not imagine any greater happiness”. The little prince adulated by his mother (“Do you know why he is so intelligent? Because, as a child, he bathed in my milk!”) becomes for all of his fellow musicians “King David”, a title he did not usurp.

It was love at first sight for David, the child, when he saw his first violin, a toy his father gave him when he was three. The little prince was born in Odessa in 1908 and started to work on the violin with Piotr Stoliarski, who also taught Nathan Milstein and later Oistrakh’s own son Igor. In 1937 he won the First Prize at the Eugène Ysaÿe Competition in Belgium.

Then begins a splendid career which is confined, however, to the USSR for a long time: a hostage to the regime, he will be authorized to travel abroad only after the death of Stalin. Oistrakh, like his friend Shostakovich, will remain his entire life in Russia. Yet the rumor of his genius stretches beyond the borders and he becomes a legend in the West. 

A major work from the repertoire, the Brahms Violin Concerto in which he is able to deploy all the facets of his playing style which reconciles the irreconcilable: Dionysian and Apollonian, firmly rooted in the ground and as light as air, a virtuoso without exhibition.

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77   

is a violin concerto in three movements composed by Johannes Brahms in 1878 and dedicated to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. It is Brahms's only violin concerto, and, according to Joachim, one of the four great German violin concerti.

“The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.”

The work was premiered in Leipzig on January 1, 1879 by Joachim, who insisted on opening the concert with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, written in the same key, and closing with the Brahms. Joachim's decision could be understandable, though Brahms complained that "it was a lot of D major—and not much else on the program."

Joachim was not presenting two established works, but one established one and a new, difficult one by a composer who had a reputation for being difficult. The two works also share some striking similarities. For instance, Brahms has the violin enter with the timpani after the orchestral introduction: this is a clear homage to Beethoven, whose violin concerto also makes unusual use of the timpani.
Brahms conducted the premiere. Various modifications were made between then and the work's publication by Fritz Simrock later in the year.

Johannes Brahms
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77

1 Allegro non troppo
2 Adagio
3 Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace

David Oistrakh, violin

Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Kondrashin, conductor

Royal Festival Hall, London, 19 September 1963

Kirill Kondrashin, one of Oistrakh’s preferred conductors, directs the Brahms concerto, which has all the warmth and confidence one would expect from a classic Oistrakh recording.  Kondrashin conducts the Brahms without a baton, in wide, fluid arm and hand movements, eliciting a rich sound from the Moscow forces. Oistrakh is equally robust in his reading of the solo part, which is astonishing in its breadth and sustained phrasing as well as the sharpness of his attacks with a full-bodied tone.

David Oistrakh - Artist of the People
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon

This is the story of David Oistrakh, the Russian violinist referred to as "King David" in his homeland. His powerful tone, precise technique, and highly emotional style made him a worldwide legend, influencing an entire generation of players. Oistrakh, who remained in Russia his entire life (1908-1974) despite persecution for being Jewish, taught at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, and performed as a solo artist from age 20 until his death. 

A specialist in late Classical and Romantic works, his recordings of many Romantic masterworks, especially the Brahms Violin Concerto, are considered to be without peer. The Brahms Violin Concerto and excerpts from other works are featured in the film. 

There are also interviews with Oistrakh's lifelong friends and fellow musicians: Yehudi Menuhin speaks on what made Oistrakh a great violinist; Mistislav Rostropovitch talks of Oistrakh's relationship with the Soviet regime; Gidon Kremer recalls Oistrakh as a teacher; Gennady Rozhdestvensky , his conductor, recalls Oistrakh the performer; and son Igor Oistrakh recalls his father as a family man and musician. This film is an inspiring look at a man whose stated goal as an artist was to bring the rich world of classical violin music to everyday people.


It is the violinist’s story that Bruno Monsaingeon tells from his birth in Odessa in 1908 until his death in Amsterdam, from a heart attack, in 1974. But it is a story marked by a wound, because it mostly takes place under Stalin. “I remain loyal to Russia, to the country, irrespective of who is in power”. This choice, which his friend Shostakovich also made, has terrible consequences which combine fear and compromise. “The regime forced people to have two faces, to think in one way and to appear in another”, says Rostropovich. Oïstrakh, who lives in dread of being arrested, becomes, in spite of himself, a propagandist for the regime. Until Stalin's death in 1953, he isn’t allowed to play on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But according to Rostropovich, who experienced this dark period: “For us music was the only window onto the sun, oxygen and life”.

Menuhin, Rostropovich and Rojdesvensky, who knew him well and played with him, talk of his “delightful” nature and of his incomparable talent which we are able to appreciate thanks to prodigious sound archives. The testimony of his son Igor, also a violinist and a great teacher, is just as precious because of what it reveals of the man.   


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