11 January 2011

Stern and Oistrakh play Vivaldi

Some time in the summer of 1961-62, having completed my first year of undergraduate science at the University of New England, I went record hunting and was delighted to discover a recording, on the old Coronet label, of two of my favourite violinists, two of the greatest violinists of the time, Isaac Stern and David Oistrakh, playing four Vivaldi concerti for two violins.

For those who really care, the four concerti are:

-  Concerto in D minor RV 514 (F.1, No. 100)
-  Concerto in G minor RV 517 (F.1, No. 12)
-  Concerto in C minor RV 509 (F.1, No. 98)
-  Concerto in D major RV 512 (F.1, No. 41)

This is joyful music, and the two maestros are clearly enjoying themselves playing together – and I mean playing together, neither trying to dominate. Stern plays first violin in two of them, Oistrakh in the other.

The collaboration between these two artists, both Ukrainian born but Stern a resident of the United States from the age of one, and Oistrakh a citizen of the Soviet Union, was a bigger deal in the circumstances of the day than it might appear in 2011.

The two men had first met in Brussels in 1951, when Isaac Stern attended the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium violin competition. David Oistrakh was one of the judges.

The Cold War kept a tight grip on Oistrakh’s ability to travel to Western Europe and the United States. It was a tense time. The Soviet Union conducted its first atomic test in 1949 and its first thermonuclear test in 1953, the year that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed on charges of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. A nuclear arms race was in full swing, the United States was in the grip of the McCarthy era, and we all lived in the Strangelovian world of nuclear armed bombers being on permanent alert.  Cultural exchanges were not high on the agenda of either side.

Nevertheless, in 1955 Oistrakh gained permission to travel to the United States, and gave a concert at Carnegie Hall that was lauded by American music celebrities not only for the quality of Oistrakh’s musicianship but for being one of the first breaches in the Iron Curtain. Isaac Stern, eleven years Oistrakh’s junior, attended the concert and described Oistrakh as “a musician who did great honour to the violin with his playing.”

It was during this 1955 Oistrakh visit to the United States that the two men collaborated on recording these four Vivaldi concerti, with Eugene Ormandy conducting members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

My vinyl recording is now almost half a century old, and I have long wondered why it had never been re-released on CD.

Happy to report, this evening while browsing the Presto Classical website I discovered that in December 2010 these marvellous recordings were released on CD by Sony, the heir to the Coronet label. Also on the CD is a recording of The Four Seasons by Anshel Brusilow, who was concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy from 1959-66.

The recording may be accessed here on the Presto Classical website.

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