Beethoven Brahms Rostropovich Oistrakh Richter Szell KarajanBeethoven – Triple Concerto

David Oistrakh, violin; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Sviatoslav Richter, piano

Berliner Philharmoniker

Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Brahms – Double Concerto

David Oistrakh, violin; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello

Cleveland Orchestra

George Szell, conductor

EMI, 1999

The two concertos presented in this album were originally released separately, but it was an obvious choice to put them together when a remastered CD version was released, not only for the presence of David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich in both Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Johannes Brahms’s Double Concerto, but also because they were recorded at short distance in the same year, 1969. In this way, two gems of Beethoven’s and Brahms’s discographies are already together to delight an eager listener who decides to refresh his or her memory hearing them once again.

The Triple Concerto (or Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, op. 56) is Beethoven’s only concerto for more than a solo instrument, written in 1803 and published the next year. It was probably composed the Archduke Rudolf of Austria, one of Beethoven’s pupils, but there is no record that the dedicatee ever performed it and, after the first performance (which took place at the Großer Redoutensaal of the Burgtheater in Vienna only in 1808), the concerto was dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz.

Three giants of music, Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter are the protagonists of the present recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. This recording is not the unique case in which the three Soviet musicians perform together the concerto, although their simultaneous presence seem so extraordinary to be unrepeatable, and they perform it in Moscow around the same period of this recording. That performance was significant because it took place shortly after Rostropovich compromised himself writing an open letter in defence of Solzhenitsyn which was not published in the USSR, but that leaked in the West. The authorities did not dare to cancel the concert for fear of popular protests, but Rostropovich fell into disgrace anyway.

In the present recording, the three musicians are absolutely fabulous. It is really a pleasure to hear how naturally and effectively they play together thanks to their perfect understanding of each other. Maybe the performance that stuns more the listener is that of David Oistrakh. The violinist is the driving force of the concerto. He is ubiquitous and plays with such fire that it seems that he wants to pour out his soul in this concerto, with impatience, as if he has to exhaust immediately his message.

Richter’s playing has always sweet, delicate nuances and there is plenty of them in Beethoven’s concerto, when the pianist opposes Oistrakh’s pyrotechnic virtuosity with a gentle but equally firm way. Rostropovich, for his part, shares the same intent of Oistrakh, but with more subtlety, almost of an intellectual kind, so that his performance may be initially a little less remarkable, but that later acquires a considerable weight.

I have some reservations on conductor Herbert von Karajan, who could have been the fourth glorious performer of Beethoven’s concerto and that on the contrary is not as good as usual. His purpose is rather difficult to guess, apart from the fact that he gives to the concerto a Mozartian colour (something that is not wrong, being the Salzburg composer one of Beethoven’s favourite models), but he lacks his usual, inner fire. The fast passages are still rather impressive and grandiose, but the slow ones are too much plain, too much relaxed. Overall it can be said that Karajan conducts this concerto as a routine performance, without negligence, but without ingenuity too – an approach that becomes even more obvious when the music of the last movement of Beethoven’s concerto fades away and that of the first movement of Brahms’s concerto begins.

Brahms’s Double Concerto in A minor, op. 102, was composed at the other end of the 19th century, in 1887, for cellist Robert Hausmann and violinist Joseph Joachim. It premiered in the same year of the composition, in Cologne, and it was so successful that the two dedicatees, together with the composer at the podium, repeated it many times in the following year, despite some criticism from illustrious people as Clara Schumann. As it is known, the Double Concerto was Brahms’s attempt to reconcile with Joachim after their friendship cooled because of Brahms’s taking the side of Joachim’s wife in their divorce case.

George Szell offers an inspired performance of this work. He seems determined to fight (yes, really to fight) the criticism of the 19th century and especially Richard Specht’s remark that this is «one of Brahms’s most inapproachable and joyless compositions». An incisive, strong character is immediately set in the firsts few bars that the orchestra (in our case, the Cleveland Orchestra) has to play before the entry of the cello and that is later reaffirmed without changes of mind or hesitation. Szell’s conduction is enthralling, sparkling and resolute and, even in its “fixed” inspiration, is a source of continuous surprise.

Personally, I had the impression that in Brahms’s concerto Rostropovich has more chances to distinguish himself than in the previous one, although it is again Oistrakh that stands out better. Anyway, in this case the voices of the two instruments describes in a more immediate and clear way the different feelings they express: the cello is more sombre and pessimistic, while the violin is more varied and its nuances range from short moments of melancholy to liveliness. It is not necessary to add that both Oistrakh and Rostropovich are almost hypnotic.

There are few recordings that can be heard one, two, three, countless times without showing many flaws and these performances of Beethoven’s and Brahms’s concertos are definitely among them.