Classic interview: David Oistrakh

Alan Blyth Thu 22nd June 2017

Alan Blyth had the rare opportunity to interview the great violinist for Gramophone in May 1973

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David OIstrakh (Tully Potter Collection)

David Oistrakh (Tully Potter Collection)

With the kind co-operation of Robert Kin­loch Anderson, who has been responsible for producing David Oistrakh's most recent records for EMI, I was able to see the celebrated violinist (who usually fights shy of interviews) when he was last in London - for the 'Days of Russian Music' - and he was kind enough to give us more than an hour of his time while we talked (in German) about his career.

Like so many violinists, indeed musicians, of his generation he hails from Odessa, where he went to the Conservatory from his fifth to his 13th year, encouraged by his father who gave him his first violin. His mother was for 30 years in the chorus of the local opera company, singing with Caruso and Ruffo among others. 'For my final examination at the Conservatory, I gave the first performance in Odessa of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto in 1926, and the composer was there to hear it. Of course, I had played in public before that. My teacher Stoljarski always made us play in public as a test, and I think the first time I appeared before an audience was when I was five-and-a-half. That would have been around 1914. After that occasion, I often played programmes of chamber music together with other pupils. My first proper concert however took place when I was 15, when as far as I remember I played the Bach A minor Concerto, with a quartet as accompaniment, the Devil's Trill Sonata - and the rest I forget. Then I remember playing the Tchaikovsky at my first concert with an orchestra. That was in 1924 or '25, when I went on a short tour with a student orchestra, of which I was the leader.

'But it was not until I had finished my studies that I really began my career. In 1927, I played Glazunov's concerto with him as conductor in both Kiev and Odessa. He was very kind to me at that time, and helped me a great deal. Although I like his concerto very much, I haven't played it now for a long time'.

In 1928 came one of the most important events in his early years - his first appearance in Leningrad with the Philharmonic. 'I remember the date very well - October 10. It was the opening of the season there, and the city was full of well-known musicians - Szigeti, Walter, Petri, Albert Coates. Malko was then the director of the orchestra. He had heard me in Odessa and he had invited me to play with them for this first concert of the season. The orchestra were very sceptical, even shocked - why had Malko invited this young man from the provinces to play with them? The concerto was the Tchaikovsky, and I'm glad to say that, although I know I wasn't yet very mature, my performance was well received. A month later I was invited back to play the Glazunov with him conducting. Unfortunately he had left the country that year, so I played it under another conductor'.

In 1929 he progressed to Moscow. 'My first recital there was in a small hall, but it was attended by many violinists, both players and teachers. I think it was a success. Then in the following year I won first prize in the Ukrainian competition for violinists at Kharkov. That was really the beginning of my career. I travelled all over Russia, and then in 1933 I was invited for my first tour abroad, in Germany, but it had to be cancelled because of the rise of the Nazis.'

After winning the prize for the best violinist in Russia in 1935, he went to Warsaw for the Wieniawski competition. 'That was really the first international competition for violinists. I won second prize -t he first went to the 15-year-old Ginette Niveu. Then came the Ysaÿe prize in Brussels, where I won first prize. I got a telegram while I was there from Walter Legge, followed up by a letter, inviting me to make some records for Columbia; but unfortunately that did not prove possible, because from 1937 until the end of the war I wasn't able to leave Russia.

'In Russia, I had already made my first records in 1930. I still have one or two of them, and I recently saw in America that they were considered very rare. I think the first one Walter Legge heard was the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy. What do I think of them now? Well, I think the technique was good, and I sound very fresh and natural - everything came easily to me then in a technical sense, but I think I had more problems with tone and colour. Over the years I'm sure my playing has matured - above all because after those discs were made I did a great deal of chamber music with Oborin and Knushevitzky, and with other musicians, played quartets and quintets. And we recorded much of this repertory - I especially liked the one of the Schubert Octet. String quartets I have played less often because I feel that in this field specialization is essential. That is a lifetime's work in itself'.

What were his first records for EMI? 'I think they were made in Sweden - the Beethoven concerto with Sixten Ehrling, then the Sibelius concerto with him. And I also made the Franck and Szymanowski sonatas at that time. That was in 1954, the year I first came to England, where I recorded the Khatchaturian concerto with the composer conducting, the Bruch G minor Concerto and the Prokofiev Concerto No 1. And we did the Brahms Double Concerto with Fournier then. That was the third of my four records of that work - the first was with Knushevitzky in Leningrad, then came one in Prague, followed by the version with Fournier and most recently with Rostropovich in Cleveland with the late George Szell. I suppose I like these last two best of all; both are interesting'.

Oistrakh's recent set of all the Mozart concertos is his first integral recording of these works. 'In fact I had to learn No 2 in D major, for the occasion. The separate Adagio written later for the A major Concerto (K621), a lovely movement, was also new for me; so was the Concertone. Now we have been working on the Shostakovich No 1, which I've never recorded before in stereo. Besides, in my old recording there are some notes that are different from what the composer has now finally decided upon. Of course, we always have a very close contact with each other when he's writing for me, although I hasten to add he needs no help in technical matters. You know, both Shostakovich concertos were written for me. As far as the Second is concerned he intended it as a 60th birthday present, but he had miscalculated and it was actually completed when I was only 59; so he then had to write another work, a violin sonata, for my 60th! I played it in London with Richter and we've recorded it. Prokofiev used often to ask my advice. He would ring me up, give me a phrase and ask me if it lay comfortably for the instrument. Of course, Prokofiev was a very good orchestrator, as you can hear in both concertos. What was he like as a man? He could be quite hard, and at other times as sweet as a child. One had to be very careful not to offend him because he was easily offended, if something didn't please him. Then he would make remarks that really hurt; but he could also be very witty'.

Of late, Oistrakh has started conducting. The first stage in that development was when he played the Mozart G major Concerto for the first time without a conductor. 'We were having difficulty making a record of it to go with the Prokofiev No 1. Alceo Galliera (who conducted the Prokofiev) had to go off for an engagement in Italy, so Walter Legge suggested that we try it without a conductor. I demurred; but he said that the orchestra loved me and he was sure all would go well. As it turned out, we made that side in an hour, and I still love the performance dearly. I like the new one, too, but there is always the danger if you repeat a work on record as to whether you can do it as well once again. Records always make me unhappy in a way. If they're no good, it's obvious why I'm dissatisfied; if they're excellent, then I'm sure I won't be able to play the work so well again.

'I have always wanted to conduct, but I had no opportunity in my youth to develop that interest, chiefly because I was so busy with violin engagements. But I thought I might have the talent for it. Anyway I felt it when I took over that Mozart concerto. Then I was once doing the Brahms Double Concerto with Knushevitzky when the conductor was very late at rehearsal. So I took over the baton, and I conducted for three-quarters-of-an-hour. The orchestra seemed to follow me. After that I conducted once for my son Igor, and it went well: several conductors who were present said I must take up conducting.

'My first complete programme included the Brahms Second Symphony, a Prokofiev concerto and Harold in Italy. That was 10 years ago in Moscow. Soon I was conducting all over Russia and also abroad, all the major orchestras. Sometimes I share the conducting, playing a concerto in the first half with another conductor. Sometimes, as with the Beethoven, I conduct the first half too while also playing the solo. I haven't yet directed opera although I've had many invitations to do so. I always ask myself whether or not I should. It's really quite a different art. Now, I have finally agreed to conduct Eugene Onegin at the Berlin State Opera in the spring of 1975'.

But he is not - not yet - considering giving up the violin, nor does he ever tire of playing the regular repertory pieces. 'Except, of course, if I have to play them with a bad orchestra!

'And I think I always manage to approach them freshly. But I also like to tackle works that are less often played. For instance, there's an excellent concerto by Myaskovsky, with which, strange to say, I made my debut in this country on record - a set of Russian 78s issued by Decca. The first two movements are particularly interesting. It's dedicated to me, and I often give it to my students - I have about 17 in Moscow - to play. Another work that is, in my opinion, sadly neglected is Taneyev's Suite de Concert of which I made an excellent recording with Malko. I would love to have that reissued. I love the Elgar and Walton concertos, both the violin and viola'.

What violin(s) does he usually play? 'I have two Stradivarius. One is my favourite, but in the summer I give it a rest. Anyway, often when I choose the second one I admire its tone and wonder why I don't play on it more frequently'.

Outside music, Oistrakh's great passion is chess. 'I used often to play with Prokofiev, once we had an official match. Later he decided to give it up. A game would make him so nervous that he couldn't sleep for the whole of the following night, and then in the day he could do no work. I also play often with my colleagues today'.

He also loves the country and tries to spend his whole holidays there, very often on the Baltic sea. 'We also have a country house outside Moscow, but my wife finds that rather a lot of trouble, so it was mostly given over to Igor and his family, until he bought his own place. The rest of the year we live in Moscow when we're not abroad'.

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