Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A CD featuring a recital given in Vienna in May 1974 confirms many of my ideas (and prejudices). The two artists are David Oistrakh and Paul Badura-Skoda. The Russian and the Viennese play Viennese duo classics by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

As with the recent Heifetz recital that emerged from Uruguay, I welcome the absence of a recording studio. Very often, a public performance brings a naturalness and heightened involvement from the artists concerned. In the old days, "live recordings" were somewhat frowned upon. Increasingly today, however, live recordings are becoming far more common (albeit for economic rather than technical reasons, one feels). Another advantage of (some) live recordings is a more natural balance between artists; as in the case of Heifetz and Brooks Smith in Uruguay, and as in the case of Oistrakh and Badura-Skoda here. The balance is ideal, and the players complement each other perfectly. I am not an Oistrakh fan; he was a wonderful violinist, a great musician and, as we hear here, a perfect partner in chamber music. But I have never taken to his ultra-smooth legato style of violin playing -- "too smooth by half", my mother might have said. I like to hear bow strokes, and I like string players who use their bows to articulate and phrase. Oistrakh sounds like smooth, whipped cream and his sound is loved by everyone but me and has had a major influence on much modern violin playing.

Live recordings bring the risk of tiny flaws, of course. But normally the flaws are a small price to pay for the heightened spontaneity and involvement by the players. Oistrakh recorded so often, and it is always good to hear him live. One wonders about some great studio performances; even a great classic such as Nathan Milstein playing the Goldmark violin concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 has one wondering about reality; the 31 minutes of the concerto apparently occupied two days of recording (second and fourth of August) and the Testament CD contains just under 15 minutes of "alternative takes"; when you hear the technician announce "Take 78" you start to remember Otto Klemperer's remark to his daughter on a similar Philharmonia / EMI occasion: "Lotte: ein Schwindel!" And a recording technician recently quipped concerning a studio recording by a famous violinist somewhat over the hill: "There was a take for every note he played".

Studio recordings are often somewhat suspect. They have also been detrimental to performances in making audiences and listeners expect complete perfection in every bar -- another factor in the marked slowing-down of tempi in performances of so many classical works, as artists seek safety in reduced speed.

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