Oistrakh and Khachaturian: Beyond the Sabre Dance

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Aram Khachaturian and David Oistrakh

When you think of twentieth century Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably, the frenetic Sabre Dance, once called “one of the catchiest, most familiar—perhaps most maddening—tunes to come out of the 20th century.”

Khachaturian wrote the Sabre Dance for the final act of the 1942 ballet, Gayane. It quickly, perhaps surprisingly, made the jump into the world of popular music, covered by everyone from Woody Herman and James Galway to Vanessa-Mae. Appropriately, it was once featured even in television ads for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.

But let’s dig deeper into Khachaturian’s music and listen to another piece: the Violin Concerto in D minor, completed in 1940 and dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh. Oistrakh advised Khachaturian (his close friend) throughout the composition process, eventually substituting his own cadenza for one written by the composer. Regarding the composition process, Khachaturian said,

I worked without effort. Sometimes my thoughts and imagination outraced the hand that was covering the staff with notes. The themes came to me in such abundance that I had a hard time putting them in some order.

Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is infused with the colorful, modal sounds of Armenian folk music. It’s “fiddle music” in the best sense, at moments reveling in a joyfully exuberant sense of improvisation. For example, listen to the dialogue between the violin and clarinet in the first movement or the improvisational bassoon line which opens the lamenting second movement. We hear the influence of the Middle East, giving this music a distinctively different vibe. (Armenia borders both Iran and Turkey). To get a sense of this, listen to two short examples of Armenian folk music, here and here. Notice the sense of repetition and the way the rhythmic emphasis shifts to unexpected beats. Something similar happens in the final movement of the Violin Concerto.

The first movement’s soaringly romantic melody, reminiscent of Borodin, returns in the final movement, adding a circular dimension to the work. In between, the second movement, Andante sostenuto, takes us to a place of haunting melancholy. Towards the end of the movement, its quiet intensity gives way to a final, desperate, full-throated lament. The movement ends with a question mark.

In 1954 David Oistrakh made a studio recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Khachaturian. But let’s listen to Oistrakh’s spectacular 1965 live concert recording with Khachaturian conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra:

  • Find David Oistrakh’s recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the recording above on vinyl.

The Recorded Legacy of Ginette Neveu

French violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949)
French violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949)

 

Tomorrow marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of French violinist Ginette Neveu. At the time of her tragic death at the age of 30 in an airplane crash, Neveu was widely regarded as one of the finest violinists of her generation. Her playing was characterized by an almost otherworldly fire and searing intensity. Her recordings exhibit a natural perfection of phrasing and a soulfulness of sound that cut through the limitations of early phonograph technology. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz described Ginette Neveu’s playing this way:

No one who saw or heard her could forget that impression-the serious concentration, the complete immersion in her task, the burning yet controlled intensity. To speak of technique is pointless because it never served for display-it was always subordinate to a musical goal. 

Ginette Neveu was five when she began to study the violin, first with her mother and then with Jules Boucherit, George Enescu, Nadia Boulanger, and Carl Flesch. When she was seven she performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra. At the age of fifteen she won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, beating out 180 other contestants, including David Oistrakh who was awarded the second prize. She helped to popularize the Sibelius Violin Concerto and gave the premiere of the Violin Sonata (Op. 119) by Francis Poulenc.

On October 28, 1949 she was en route to concert engagements in the United States when her Air France flight crashed into a mountain after two failed attempts to make an emergency landing at an airport on  São Miguel Island in the Azores. Her accompanist and brother, the pianist Jean-Paul Neveu, was also killed. Following her death, cellist Pablo Casals wrote,

For me her playing has always been one of the greatest revelations of the instruments and of music. To the impression of perfection, balance, and artistic taste, she added in her interpretation, fire and abandon which filled her playing with richness. 

Brahms and More

Here is Neveu’s 1948 recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with conductor Issay Dobrowen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Keep listening after the concerto and you’ll hear a collection of shorter pieces: Suk’s Four Pieces, Op. 17 (at 38:16), Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 (at 54:22), Ravel’s Tzigane (at 58:40), Falla’s Danse espagnole (at 1:08:54), and the showpiece Hora staccato by Romanian virtuoso violinist Grigoraş Dinicu (at 1:12:20).

Sibelius Violin Concerto

Here is the final movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with conductor Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra. (You can listen to the first two movements here). The tempo is slightly slower than we often hear, but every note can be heard and there is a powerful sense of a Nordic dance taking flight:

Strauss Violin Sonata

Here is Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18, a soaring, Romantic work by a composer we usually associate with large-scale orchestral tone poems:

The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

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Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.

Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:

Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.

As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.

The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”

One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.

The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”

The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.

Eight Great Recordings

Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.

Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:

Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony

This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:

Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York

This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:

As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.

Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam

Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic

Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.

David Oistrakh and the French National Radio Orchestra

Few “great recordings” lists are complete without a performance by David Oistrakh. Oistrakh recorded the Brahms Concerto several times. Otto Klemperer conducted this reverberant 1960 studio recording.

Ruggiero Ricci and the Sinfonia of London

This 1991 Ruggiero Ricci CD features sixteen cadenzas including those written by Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Auer, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Adolf Busch, and Nathan Milstein.

Remembering Lydia Mordkovitch

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Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014)

Russian-born violinist Lydia Mordkovitch passed away earlier in the week. She was a student of David Oistrakh and served as his assistant in the late 1960s. In this interview she talks about her Russian musical roots and the influence of Oistrakh’s teaching.

Mordkovitch emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1980. In 1995 she joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music. Her extensive discography on the Chandos label includes music of English composers (violin concertos of Arnold Bax, William Alwyn and George Dyson) and Max Bruch’s seldom heard Second and Third Violin Concertos.

Listening to a sample of Lydia Mordkovitch’s recordings, I was struck by the soulfulness and honesty of her musicianship. While many contemporary violinists seem to sound alike, her tone was distinctive. The Loure from J.S. Bach’s Third Partita (the second movement in the final clip below) is an example of Mordkovitch’s singing approach to sound and wide array of tonal colors.

Strad Magazine offered the following description in a 2009 review of Mordkovitch’s CD of Russian violin music:

To hear Lydia Mordkovitch at the peak of her interpretative powers is like being thrown back half a century when the likes of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin held sway…She has never believed in half measures and here every note is played to its maximum expressive potential, whether it is a raging violin fortissimo or a gentle viola pizzicato.

Here is the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:

Olivier Messiaen’s Thème et variations was written in 1932 as a wedding gift for the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos:

Here is Mordkovitch’s 1987 recording of J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E:

Oleh Krysa Plays Solo Bach

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

A few days ago, I was excited to run across this rare, old recording of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, performed by my former teacher, Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa. A student of David Oistrakh, Krysa currently teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was awarded first prize at the 1963 Paganini Competition. Between 1977 and 1990, he served as first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, founded at the Moscow Conservatory. He has maintained an international solo career.

Although this recording does not appear to be commercially available, you can find Oleh Krysa’s extensive discography here and here.

The violin must sing! And the violin can sing with the help of the right hand. No matter whether you are playing cantilena or passages, the technique must “sound,” it must be melodious and always esthetically meaningful.

-Oleh Krysa (from an interview in “The Way They Play,” Book 14, by Samuel Applebaum and Mark Zilberquit)

1. Adagio:

2. Fuga Allegro:

3. Siciliano:

4. Presto:

Recommended Recording: Szymanowski and Shostakovich Sonatas

Szymanowski and Shostakovich Violin SonatasCanadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka have released an exciting new recording featuring sonatas for violin and piano by two giants of twentieth century music: Karol Szymanowski and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Polish composer and pianist Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is sometimes overlooked, but his music occupies an important position between Late Romanticism and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Written in 1904, Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata Op. 9, grabs your attention with a powerfully brilliant opening. This recording captures a sense of strength and heroism as well as the more ethereal side of the music (as in the second movement). At times there are echoes of Chopin in the piano writing.

Written in 1968, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 was one of Shostakovich’s last works. The atmosphere of the music, sometimes eerie, other times sarcastic or ferocious, comes across beautifully in this performance. The sonata was written for David Oistrakh in celebration of his 60th birthday. Oistrakh explained:

Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error of one year in his timing. The concerto was ready for my 59th birthday. Shortly afterwards, Dmitri seemed to think that, having made a mistake, he ought to correct it. That is how he came to write the Sonata … I had not been expecting it, though I had long been hoping that he would write a violin sonata.

You can find this recording on iTunes and here. Read more in this review from last month’s Strad Magazine.

Oistrakh Plays Tchaikovsky

Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (image taken from olehkrysa.com
Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (from olehkrysa.com)

What better way to end the year than with a few rare old recordings by the legendary Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974)? Listening to these clips, which range from solo to chamber repertoire, it’s easy to hear why Oistrakh is regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. There is a deep musical sincerity and a powerful sense of humanity in his playing which transcends the ordinary. In the fastest and most demanding technical passages every note sings with the most round, noble tone. Even now, his playing sounds strangely “modern,” uninfected with stylish mannerisms of any historical period. It’s just pure music.

My former teacher, Oleh Krysa, was a student of Oistrakh for seven years. In Book 14 of The Way They Play, Krysa sheds some light on the qualities which set Oistrakh apart as a performer and teacher:

[quote]In the first place, it was about developing musical sincerity, which is probably of utmost importance. He was absolutely intolerant of certain things: it refers primarily to ethics and taste and as a consequence to such aspects as style of playing, choice of repertory, attitude not only to music, but to art in general…Harmony was really striking in him-I mean both his human charm and performance. Oistrakh’s creative work, at least for me, associates with Raphael’s paintings. In his playing there had never been any pointedness of expression or sugary sentimentalism, there had never been a trace of affectation aimed at winning over the public. And his pedagogical activities were also aimed first and foremost at guarding his pupils against such “extremes” and at teaching them to express themselves naturally and sincerely on the instrument.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto[/typography]

Here is Oistrakh’s 1962 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The warm, rich Philadelphia string sound is on full display in this recording. Oistrakh chose to perform his own edition which is closer to Tchaikovsky’s original text than the edition by Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Auer but withdrew the dedication after Auer’s criticism. The first performance was given by Adolf Brodsky in Vienna in 1881.

  1. Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Canzonetta. Andante 18:54
  3. Finale. Allegro vivacissimo 25:35

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Piano Trio, Op. 50[/typography]

Now let’s hear a 1948 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Oistrakh is joined by pianist Lev Oborin and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Written around 1881, the piece is in two large movements. In the second movement a series of contrasting and far reaching variations (including a fugue) spring from a simple melody. Tchaikovsky worried that it was too symphonic, writing to a friend:

[quote]The Trio is finished … now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad. But I am afraid, having written all my life for orchestra, and only taken late in life to chamber music, I may have failed to adapt the instrumental combinations to my musical thoughts. In short, I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. I have tried to avoid this, but I am not sure whether I have been successful.[/quote]

Symphonic or not, the music embodies a sense of raw emotion unique to Tchaikovsky. In the heroic major section between 2:55 and 3:41 it’s hard not to hear a hint of Russian nationalism.

  1. Pezzo elegiaco (Moderato assai – Allegro giusto) 0:00
  2. (A) Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto – (B) Variazione Finale e coda 18:00

Despite its many spirited adventures, the music seems to give up at the end with the same tragic acceptance we hear at the end of the “Pathetique” Symphony. Tchaikovsky builds our anticipation around 44:35 by prolonging the dominant (V chord), but listen to way he avoids a clear, satisfying resolution at 45:08. The remaining music melts away into the gloomy hopelessness of a funeral dirge.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26[/typography]

Here is a 1948 recording of the hauntingly beautiful Sérénade mélancolique. Notice all the little Tchaikovsky-isms: the structure of the melody and the way it restlessly develops, the off-kilter rhythmic complexity in the low strings around 3:45, the counter melody scale line (beginning at 6:28) which begins in the low woodwinds and rises dramatically, passing from one instrument to another. Around 8:05 this passage comes again with the violin and woodwinds reversing roles. Listen to the bass pizzicatos providing a rhythmic foundation under the melody. Tchaikovsky is never far from the world of ballet.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Andante Cantabile[/typography]

Here is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11. The melody is based on a Russian folk song which Tchaikovsky apparently heard whistled by a house painter. Oistrakh performs with Pyotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Yehudi Menuhin on David Oistrakh (Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwartz):

[quote]I loved him immediately. Not only was he the gentlest, staunchest, most warm-hearted of men, but he was also simple and ingenuous. He never felt the need to appear other than he was…but presented himself candidly, without second thoughts or self-consciousness or doubts about his reception, a complete human being.[/quote]