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Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Szell, Oh My!: The Cleveland Orchestra’s Recording of Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Opus 102

Left: Album cover of the 1970 EMI Recording of the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Opus 102 (from left to right: Mstislav Rostropovich, George Szell, and David Oistrakh
Right: Front side of the LP

March 18, 2016

The history of Johannes Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Opus 102 is one of bringing people together through music. Brahms wrote his Double Concerto (its colloquial name) in part to reconcile himself and Joseph Joachim, a superstar violinist who had been one of Brahms’s closest friends since they first met in 1853. The two became estranged in 1883, when Brahms sided with Joseph’s wife, Amalie, during bitter divorce proceedings initiated when Joachim became convinced that she was having an affair with the famous music publisher Fritz Simrock. Although Joachim remained an avid performer of Brahms’s music, his silence weighed heavily upon Brahms. With the Double Concerto, Brahms hoped he had found a way to bridge the gap between himself and Joachim. Ultimately, Brahms and Joachim became friends again; their shared experience of preparing the concerto helped them regain their voices.

In a broader sense, the Double Concerto is a work that brings two soloists together to share the concert stage as equals. Double (and even triple) concertos were not unheard of, but were certainly rare; when a soloist normally performs a concerto, they are in the driver’s seat, and the focus is squarely upon them. In a double concerto however, the soloist must co-exist with another, changing the dynamic of the work. In a 1969 interview with Stereo Review reporter George Jellinek, David Oistrakh reflected upon his experiences performing the Brahms Double Concerto, saying, “each attempt brings a new approach, a new kind of rapport with a fellow artist, all different individuals.” This sensibility comes through in Oistrakh’s own recording of the Double Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich and The Cleveland Orchestra under Szell in 1969:

This widely praised recording (which won the 1971 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist/s) was the crown jewel of a special new collaboration between the Orchestra and EMI. Although the Orchestra had a contract with Columbia Records, recording opportunities with them were drying up, forcing A. Beverly Barksdale, the general manager of The Cleveland Orchestra from 1957 to 1970, to search for a potential second recording partner. Meanwhile, EMI, the English record company, had seen its American market share plummet and was attempting to rescue the fortunes of its Angel classical brand. Each recognizing that the other had what they needed, in 1968 a three-year contract was negotiated between The Cleveland Orchestra and EMI by Barksdale and Peter Andry (the head of EMI’s classical division). To make the proposal more attractive, EMI used its connections with the Soviet recording agency Melodiya to secure permissions for several of their artists to record with the Orchestra. For the planned recording of the Brahms Double Concerto, EMI was able to secure David Oistrakh for violin and Mstislav Rostropovich for cello  two of the greatest virtuosi of the twentieth century.

Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Szell post-recording, discussing possible edits

This recording project with EMI/Angel was not by any means the first time that The Cleveland Orchestra had come together with musicians from the Soviet Union. As early as 1934, the Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski performed, for the first time outside of the Soviet Union, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and in 1965 had been chosen by the State Department to tour the Soviet Union. Oistrakh was a previous guest artist with the Orchestra, and had even conducted a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in December 1967. However, this arrangement with EMI/Angel was something special, as it would preserve this moment of musical fraternity for all time  an American orchestra, Soviet soloists, and a European recording label.

EMI/Angel and The Cleveland Orchestra worked tirelessly on making the recordings the best possible. In the words of EMI audio mixer and engineer Carson C. Taylor, in a March 31, 1969 memo to Michael Maxwell, then assistant manager of The Cleveland Orchestra, “We will do our best to record the Cleveland Orchestra as it sounds: ‘Beautiful.’” To that end, they worked on several new recording schemes that involved elaborate placements of different types of microphones throughout the hall, including hanging them above the performer’s heads. In pursuit of perfection, Szell and EMI even spent almost forty thousand dollars in today’s money to have an entire additional rehearsal solely dedicated to trying out different placements of the Orchestra and microphones. With all the preparations, the Double Concerto was recorded over an impressive eight days from May 6 to May 13 of 1969, with the release date set for February 1970.

Left: Brahms’s Double Concerto being recorded onstage in Severance Hall (May 1969)
Right: Memo dated March 21, 1969 from Michael Maxwell to the Orchestra’s administrators. One of nearly a dozen memos on this subject, it discusses some of the elaborate preparations being undertaken for the recording

Unfortunately, beyond a few photos and the recording itself, little record remains of the two days in May when the concerto was actually recorded. Returning to the recollections of George Jellinek, his experience of attempting to interview Oistrakh for Stereo Review may shed some light on this relative paucity of documentation:

“The maestro glacially proclaimed that ‘We are here to make music. Interviews are unimportant.’ His discouraging attitude notwithstanding, we were allowed to stay. Our immersion in some wonderful music making was tempered by maestro Szell’s disapproving glances during the orchestral breaks, culminating in his telling me just before the lunch break: ‘Since I have to discuss things with Mr. Oistrakh at the end of the day, I don’t see how he will find the time to talk with you.’”

Although negotiations and plans for the recordings went fairly smoothly, those for a paired concert did not. Because of Oistrakh’s hectic schedule, he would only be able to arrive on the evening of May 10, and so would be unable to play the Double Concerto with Rostropovich for the weekend’s concerts. Initially, Rostropovich did not want to perform, having, according to a memo from Barksdale to EMI’s Peter Andry  dated January 19, “had his heart set,” on playing a live concert with Oistrakh. The opportunity to play with a western orchestra was fairly uncommon in the Soviet Union, even more so when not part of an official cultural exchange. However, Barksdale had a trump card: Janet Gross, the wife of Dr. Jerome Gross (a noted violinist and friend of Oistrakh’s), convinced Rostropovich over dinner in Los Angeles to perform the Double Concerto with a substitute.

While the sound of that concert performance of the Brahms Double Concerto lasted only until the baton fell, the Oistrakh-Rostropovich-Szell recording continues on. This is not to say that recorded music is superior to live but rather that they are different – the beauty and joy of a live performance is unique and ephemeral, living on only in the memories of those who were there. A recording is an enduring artifact that can allow an echo of that event to carry on. Under the baton of Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, The Cleveland Orchestra continues to record great music, most recently releasing a cycle of Johannes Brahms’s music. Perhaps forty-six years from now, someone will write an essay about that recording.

Alex Lawler
Alex Lawler is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
He is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

All photographs and audio clips courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Want to know more?

Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford  a lengthy, but well-written and engaging look into the life of Brahms.

Great Recordings of the Century  Beethoven: Triple Concerto / Brahms: Double Concerto. EMI, 1999.  A re-release on CD by EMI of the original 1970 Angel LP featuring The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell, with David Oistrakh on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello.

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