Few great musicians have suffered as many setbacks as David Oistrakh. That he came through everything to become one of the world’s most beloved artists was due to a personality that, as Yehudi Menuhin pointed out, had something of the Old Testament prophet to it. Though fêted as one of the great violinists, Oistrakh was an astonishing all-rounder: to Leopold Auer’s prowess as soloist, orchestral concertmaster, member of a trio, quartet leader and pedagogue, he added viola soloist, member of a string duo (with son Igor) and conductor.
Born David Kolker in Odessa on September 30, 1908, he took the name of his stepfather, a violinist and multi-instrumentalist who roasted and sold sunflower seeds at a basement shop in Politzeiskaya (Police Street). Little Dodik’s mother, who sang in the chorus, often took him to the Odessa Opera, where the orchestra was ‘a miracle of sound’. ‘However far I think back into my childhood,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘I cannot see myself without a violin.’ Given a toy fiddle at age three, he wandered about, imitating the Politzeiskaya buskers. ‘This dream of being a street musician appealed to me so much that when at last, at the age of five, I was given a real violin – one-eighth size – and started proper studies, I was totally absorbed.’
You can chart Oistrakh’s progress via a cavalcade of discs, virtually all of which are of the highest class
His teacher Pyotr Stolyarsky had a distinctly Czech violinistic pedigree: he was from the Jan Hřímal line via the Polish violinist Stanisaw Barcewicz and had also studied with Josef Karbulka. Stolyarsky’s only Auer influence came from another Pole, Emil Mynarski. Dodik also imbibed the Czech tradition at the opera house, from concertmaster František Stupka and chief conductor Josef Přibík. Stolyarsky instilled superb sightreading skill and a love of chamber music, making him play the viola, which developed a feeling for inner parts and harmony.
While still a student, Oistrakh toured Ukraine; and in 1928, undeterred by sniping from players and conductor, he made his Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra debut with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto under Nikolai Malko. He won the 1935 national contest in Leningrad and in the same year went to the first Wieniawski competition in Warsaw with high hopes; but the jury preferred 15-year-old Ginette Neveu (even French juror Gabriel Bouillon blamed anti-Semitism). He took refuge in work, making Paris, Vienna and Budapest debuts and (in 1935) starting his 30-year sonata collaboration with Lev Oborin. In the 1930s, he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and premiered Myaskovsky’s Violin Concerto.
A burgeoning international career was interrupted by the war. He worked ceaselessly, playing for the troops and even being flown into besieged Leningrad. He premiered Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in 1940, cemented his friendships with Shostakovich and Prokofiev (who had humiliated him on their first meeting in 1927 but now produced two sonatas for him, in 1943 and 1946), and started his trio with Oborin and the cellist Svyatoslav Knushevitsky – the latter also playing in his quartet, with Pyotr Bondarenko and Mikhail Terian taking the inner parts.
The end of the war brought Oistrakh almost three decades of international acclaim, although exposure to Western musicians led him to ‘straighten out’ his playing to suit our tastes (I prefer his earlier, more whippy bowing style). You can chart his progress via a cavalcade of discs, virtually all of the highest class; being an avid record collector, he took the process very seriously. His personal favourite was Brahms’s Double Concerto with Pierre Fournier and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Alceo Galliera. He had been listening to it on October 23, 1974, when, after a typical day of rehearsing, practising and running through music with a pupil, he went to bed late at an Amsterdam hotel and died in the early hours.
A Strad man like Adolf Busch and Nathan Milstein, Oistrakh shone most brightly in Russian music, especially Shostakovich’s First Concerto – a heroic interpretation. His Tchaikovsky so impressed Josef Suk that the Czech refused to record it. The Taneyev, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky and Myaskovsky works with orchestra were his property, and Prokofiev’s F minor was just one of a long list of sonatas that he and Oborin played to perfection (for their Beethoven cycle, the 1962 live Paris performances are recommended).
Oistrakh’s finest achievements with his piano trio were the two Mendelssohn works, and his quartet was best heard in Beethoven’s Harp Quartet. He also illuminated the Dvořák, Szymanowski, Sibelius and Hindemith violin concertos. He rarely penetrated to the heart of the Beethoven concerto as Leonid Kogan did, but honours were even in the Brahms. Oistrakh’s Mozart could be inspiring: in 1963, after a gap of 37 years, he took up the viola again to play the Sinfonia concertante with his son, a duo that gave rise to some beautiful two-violin recordings. Their best Bach Double Concerto was that with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. At his best, Oistrakh, with his big tone and supple legato, distilled a unique humanity.
This article originally appeared in the Awards 2019 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!
1913 – Child prodigy
He enters Pyotr Stolyarsky’s Odessa school aged five, and the next year plays in public, opening the concert which ends with Nathan Milstein performing as part of his own graduation from the school.
1923 – Enters the conservatoire
He begins his studies at the Odessa conservatoire; plays his first concerto with orchestra (Bach’s A minor); gives his first recital in 1924; graduates in 1926 with a performance of the Bach Chaconne, Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Rubinstein’s Viola Sonata.
1927 – Relocation
He plays Glazunov’s Concerto in Kiev, under the composer’s baton, and moves to Moscow, where he meets the pianist Tamara Rotareva, marrying her in 1930. Their only child, Igor, is born in 1931.
1937 – Big competition win
He triumphs at the first international Brussels competition in memory of Ysaÿe, before a jury including Thibaud, Szigeti, Flesch, Hubay, Kulenkampff and Crickboom.
1955 – Premiere and delayed debut
He premieres Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 in Leningrad with Yevgeny Mravinsky, and makes his US debut at Carnegie Hall.
1958 – Turns his hand to conducting
When conductor Alceo Galliera is ill, Oistrakh replaces him at a London studio session directing Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G from the violin. He first conducts in public in Moscow, 1962.