Showdown: Oistrakh vs. Milstein

The Contestants:

David Oistrakh

The dedicatee of some of the greatest music in the repertoire (both Shostakovich Concertos, the Khatchaturian Concerto, and two Sonatas by Prokofiev), Oistrakh is widely considered the finest violin master in the history of Russia.

Nathan Milstein

The Undisputed King of Bach, Milstein had a 72-year performing career (his debut came in the Glazunov Concerto…with the composer conducting), playing well into his 80’s.  His memoir, From Russia to the West, also shows that he ran in an unbelievably cool circle of friends.

The Rep:

Johannes Brahms

The concerto by Johannes Brahms is one of the hallmarks of the violin repertoire.  Written for the legendary Joseph Joachim, it is a technically demanding showcase for the soloist, but it is also as musically rich as anything Brahms ever composed.

The Showdown:

Oistrakh and Milstein both recorded the Brahms Concerto on more than one occasion, with Oistrakh particularly being a bit of a Brahms Concerto slut (recordings with Kondrashin, Szell, Klemperer, Konwitschny, Sargent, Rozhdestvensky, and Pedrotti).  Both performers’ interpretations are regarded as among the very best in this music.  But whose is better?

The Case for Oistrakh:

Despite the fact that there are so many recordings featuring Oistrakh, his approach is remarkably consistent (this recording pairs him with Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic).  He possesses that Russian soul, combining a very expressive tone with Heifetz-caliber technique.  Oistrakh really strives for as much character as he can get out the music.  Listen, for example, to the first appearance of the violin:

Oistrakh really digs in to the color notes of the ascending scale, and he plays the the double-stops with a really crisp edge.  I often find that performers try to round out the edges in Brahms (be they violinists, conductors, pianists, whatever); the approach here is very unique in style and intense in execution.  The range of expression from Oistrakh is remarkable as the solo line transitions into smooth, flowing legato music highlighted by his pristine intonation and sound on the high notes.

The music of the second movement demands songful playing from the violin, and though Oistrakh’s tone has a lot of front, his pitch and musicality are remarkable.  Again, he embellishes the music, pushing and pulling in spots, but never loses the arc of the melody:

Oistrakh’s articulation and precision are on full display in the opening of the 3rd movement.  He again opts to add his own touches to the music, with a little hiccup at the end of the phrases that gives it a real bounce.  His double-stops are incredible; really well-tuned and clean.  When the dotted rhythms come around, Oistrakh’s hard-edged accents really drive the piece forward.  This is an exciting performance:

Oistrakh’s tone is really remarkable, somehow possessing the complete oxymoron of icy warmth…like the liquid nitrogen of violin sound.  But it is his musicianship that shines through in his performance of the Brahms Concerto, with enough character and soul to gives James Brown a run for his money.

The Case for Milstein:

Where Oistrakh seeks to enhance the music with his own nuances (most of which are remarkably effective), Milstein generally takes the music at face value and plays it to perfection.  Here is Milstein’s take on the opening violin solo and exposition:

Milstein seems to be particularly sympathetic to the shapes, and he finds the perfect balance between the common rounded-off approach and Oistrakh’s icy (in a good way) crispness.  The ease with which Milstein moves through the double-stops is remarkable; it can’t be that simple to make it sound quite as efficient as he makes it seem.  His tone on the statement of the theme is gorgeous…less peanut butter pie sweet and more black currant scone sweet.

This tone quality combines with Milstein’s straightforward approach to create a memorable take on the second movement:

It’s rare to hear this music performed with such little interference from the performer, but the result is revelatory.  The pacing is perfect, and the line flows so naturally forward without being rushed.  I’ve never heard this movement performed better than this from a musical standpoint.

Milstein continues to tolerate little nonsense in the third movement, with a very relaxed and easily moving line (helped tremendously by the also-not-likely-to-take-much-nonsense William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony).  There are no hiccups or flourishes here, just a delightfully simple approach to some of the most buoyant music Brahms wrote:

The Winner:

Oistrakh’s performance is full of life and energy, and his musical instincts are almost universally spot on.  His approach brings a bit of himself into the music, with sparkling results.  But it’s amazing what you can discover when you stick to a straight ahead plan.  Milstein simply takes the music and executes it ruthlessly.  His is an amazing performance that shows just how much a gifted performer can dazzle when he gets deep inside the music.

Nathan Milstein

Nathan Milstein,


2 thoughts on “Showdown: Oistrakh vs. Milstein

  1. For this piece, yes. But I would take Oistrakh for the Shostakovich concerti (the second being criminally underplayed, just like the second cello concerto) any day. As you can see, I’m reading through your old posts.

  2. Agreed. Oistrakh is the undisputed champ for the Shostakovich concerti. Glad you’re finding something in the old posts!

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