The complete Brahms violin sonata cycle from David Oistrakh shines in live concert performances from Prague and Moscow.

BRAHMS: Scherzo in c minor, WoO 2; Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78 “Regenlied-Sonata”; Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 “Thun”; Violin Sonata No. 3 in d minor, Op. 108 – David Oistrakh, violin/ Frida Bauer & Sviatoslav Richter, p. (Scherzo, Op. 100) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 321, 73:38 (2/19/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:  

Russian violin master David Oistrakh inscribed his live Brahms works over the course of six years, 1966-1972, in concerts alternating between Prague and Moscow.  Oistrakh opens (8 December 1968, Moscow) with the 1853 Scherzo that formed  a part of the so called F-A-E Sonata that Brahms, Albert Dietrich, and Robert Schumann co-created for their mutual friend Joseph Joachim.  Oistrakh and Richter strike a potent, slashing tone throughout the movement, although its tender episodes enjoy a sympathetic pathos.

The musical scene switches to Prague (17 May 1972), where Oistrakh and Frida Bauer collaborate on the 1878 G Major Sonata. The transparent theme, based on the Op. 59, No. 3 “Regenlied,” gains volume and momentum from both performers, gravitating to a fateful d minor. The autumnal melancholy has its complement in the rhythm, which hints at a barcarolle. Bauer’s liquid playing haunts us as much as Oistrakh’s impassioned flights of emotion. The coda enjoys a suave momentum, vivid in breadth and ardent closure, reaping the briefest of applause from one rapt listener. The equally lachrymose E-flat Adagio soon assumes a martial tone in b minor, a procession of stoic melancholy.  Oistrakh’s sense of line remains ardent, without sag, and his violin tone captures the full value of each note – including “symphonic” double notes – as it emerges. The last movement combines sonata-form and rondo, once more utilizing aspects of the “Regenlied” motif. Oistrakh and Bauer urge the melodic content along briskly, increasing the emotional turbulence as it ebbs and flows. We recall that the work meant to serve as a personal requiem for Felix Schumann, the composer’s godson, whose death at age twenty-four robbed music and poetry of a gifted artist.
We return to Moscow (29 March 1972) for Oistrakh’s collaboration with Richter once more here in the A Major Sonata Brahms wrote in 1886. Although designated Allegro amabile, for the first movement, Oistrakh and Richter realize the music rather more agitato, as the melody – later utilized in the lied Wie Melodien zieht, Op. 105, No. 1 – moves into ¾. Some attribute the ballade character of the movement’s third tune to Walther’s Prize Song  from Die Meistersinger, which Brahms admired for its contrapuntal acumen. Richter’s steely patina virtually collides with Oistrakh’s conciliatory tone to produce the elusive, often anomalous affect that marks late Brahms. The five-episode Andante tranquillo combines a slow movement with a scherzando. Oistrakh takes a passionate, albeit whimsical approach to this music, often rife with bitter-sweet nostalgia. The A Major Allegro grazioso, 2/2, presents us a rhapsodic rondo in which the keyboard often displays chromatic turns of a restrained passion, expressed in Richter’s clarion chords.

As per expectation, the collaboration with Frida Bauer (18 May 1966) in the Brahms d minor Sonata of 1888 bristles with loving intensity tinged by a plaintive longing. Even the otherwise frolicsome Un poco presto e con sentimento third movement assumes a savage passion momentarily before returning its coquette persona.  Throughout the performance, Oistrakh’s double stops have sounded fully resonant, while Bauer’s piano part has been more than virtuosic. The impetus of the keyboard for this broad movement (337 measures) seems to borrow energies from the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata, with dark episodes that surge furiously, especially when we consider Hugo Wolf’s nasty quip that Brahms remained incapable of exultation. Oistrakh’s capacity for sotto voce con espressivo has hardly been more fluent and intimate, especially in the first movement. The pure sympathy between performers and composer assures this rendition as one for the ages. The Prague audience seems well aware.

—Gary Lemco