Bruno Monsaingeon's David Oistrakh: Artist of the People? is a probing portrait of perhaps the most thought-provoking of modern violin virtuosos, and a good companion to his similarly revealing documentary on pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Although conversation with the man himself is minimal (Oistrakh died in 1974), Monsaingeon is able to draw upon the priceless reminiscences of those who worked with him, including his son Igor, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, protégé Gidon Kremer, and the late Yehudi Menuhin: their frank and sincere comments on Soviet society make for sobering listening. Equally importantly, the range of Oistrakh's repertoire is covered, from Bach to Shostakovich, in footage covering half a century of performance. The musicianship and humanity of a life dedicated to music in the face of an often ruthless establishment is powerfully and movingly evoked. This is a documentary that no one interested in great music-making or 20th-century culture should miss. --Richard Whitehouse ... Read more
What are we talking about: music or politics?
Here we have most probably one of the three greatest violinists of the 20th Century - and what are our reviewers write about? Stalin, Zhdanov, Commusnists, KGB... This stuff is dead and gone some 12 years ago, but THE MUSIC and THE ARTISTRY of this great man will live forever! So, let's concentrate and share our views on Oistrakh as a great musician - which he really was! -let's enjoy his great music, and let's forget about those scoundrels which will be remembered in future ONLY because they happened to live at the same time and place with Oistrakh, Kogan, Richter, Gilels, Shafran, Sofronitsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and others GREAT Russian musicians.
Has high moments, wonderful performances
In the face of power, the tyranny of a corrupt regime, what is a musician to do when his life is dependent upon it for survival, It is far to facile for Yehudi Menuhin to fault Oistrakh's lack of courage in the face of the Stalinist/Zhadnov Kultura regime, Menuhin sitting comfortably in his posh London flat,what does he know of Oistrakh's struggles,nothing. Yet Menuhin had brokered Oistrakh's appearance in England, a coup that he would have informed the press of the Soviet tyranny had they not allowed him out of Mother Russia. This other installment by Bruce Monsaindeon is not as interesting as the Richter film, there the vintage footage was breathtaking spanning Richter's entire career. Was it the KGB who followed him with a camera?,with such intimate situations,even funerals,tours, and film appearances. Here in the Oistrakh there are also great moments, as now older with jowls and a "grosse bauch" mid section, the ultimate power of his playing, here the excerpt is the Cadenza in the Violin Concerto in A minor, of friend Dmitri Shostakovich. There is also vintage humiliating like performaces from the Thirties Oistrakh playing in one of these Russian Stalinist Odes to the Leader,with many Harps and Flowers, the spectacle of the Dialectic. But Oistrakh's powerful interpretations, the massive sound,conviction he summoned from this tiny box with strings running on its top is/was astonishing. There's also a touching tribute by Rostropovich where Oistrakh was compelled to renounce him(ficticiously Purge Trial mentality-like), for the apparent defection, a luxury not all Soviet artists managed during their careers. Gidon Kremer reflects surprisingly perceptively on Oistrakh's meaning to violinists of his generation as well as Igor, Oistrakh's musician son.
Political midget, musical giant
Monsaingeon's Oistrakh film is indeed puzzling. Likewise the companion Richter tape, the musical contents of this TV-derived programme presents the viewer with stunning performances (excerpts only, though), both of chamber and of symphonic music, that amply secure Oistrakh's place amongst the really key violinists of the century. Yet more so than in the Richter tape, Monsaingeon also opts for stressing the man's lack of fortitude before the USSR's communist bosses, picturing him as a weak character who hid behind his music-making and looked the other way whilst enjoying the favourable status his condition as "Artist of the People of the USSR" gave him during much of the Stalin reign, one of the darkest periods of European history, and those of his successors, much like what has amply been discussed regarding similar stances in musicians like Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm or Richard Strauss during the nazi regime in Germany, or of other artists who cynically profited from a favoured position in totalitarian states in order to advance in their life (Dalí's flirtations with the Franco regime in Spain comes to mind, as well as Respighi's with the Mussolini Government and Karajan's with Hitler's). Oistrakh's lack of political courage, or perhaps his failure to defect to the West as commented by Menuhin in one of the programme's interviews, may well be deservedly criticisable, as well as his meek acceptance of the exploitation of which he was the subject by his government, be it economical (as the lion's share of his income from tours to the West was snatched from him by the Soviet authorities), political (as a sample of the Soviet regime's purported superiority in catering to the spiritual needs of its citizens) or as a propaganda vehicle (as in one of the film's initial sequences, probably one of the corniest ever filmed anywhere, the crème de la crème of soviet string players gather in an early Technicolour-washed strings-only adaptation of one of Rachmaninov's préludes from his Op.23), but I'd say that Monsaingeon's exaggerate concentration on that sad facet of this giant of a musician's personality ultimaltely proves the weak spot of the film. David Oistrakh may have been something of a midget politically speaking, but when he died in an Amsterdam hotel in 1974 the world lost a giant of a musician, and it is precisely his musical legacy what in the end solidly keeps him in a privileged place our memory and not anything else.
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