By Sasha Margolis
When rising star Nathan Milstein left the young Soviet Union for parts West in the mid-1920s, it was the latest in a series of departures by Russia’s top violinists. Mischa Elman was long gone. Jascha Heifetz made his exit in the middle of the 1917 Revolution. Leopold Auer, who taught all three, pulled up stakes in 1918, saying work in Russia had become impossible. Milstein’s leaving must have felt like a final indignity.
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Luckily for Russian violin playing, David Oistrakh was just coming of age. With his effortless technique, enormous tone always ready to blossom into ravishing sweetness, and profound musicianship with extraordinary sensitivity to detail, Oistrakh rose to become a linchpin of Soviet musical culture at home, and one of its most prominent faces abroad. For all that, he was endearingly humble and unassuming in manner, and beloved the world over.
Oistrakh was born in 1908 in Odessa, and studied for thirteen years there with Pyotr Stolyarsky, before moving to try his luck in Moscow. By his own reckoning, his youthful playing left much to be desired in the areas of tone, rhythm, and musical depth. But through unceasing work, he turned these deficiencies into his greatest strengths. The mature Oistrakh possessed unshakeable rhythm and great volume and roundness of tone, along with a vivid coloristic vocabulary and mastery of a wide range of styles and moods: He could be deliberate or impulsive, simple or subtle, powerful or poetic. By 1937, when he won Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth Competition, he was considered his country’s greatest violinist.
Oistrakh pursued an ever-expanding portfolio of roles—teacher, chamber musician, conductor—and after World War II toured widely in the West. He concertized constantly, complaining of terrible nervousness if too much time went by between performances. He inspired his nation’s composers, and grew close to Prokofiev (with whom he played chess) and Shostakovich. Abroad, he developed friendships with violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern. As a patriotic Russian with foreign contacts, intimate with sometimes out-of-official-favor composers, Oistrakh had a complex civic life. But he was blessed with a profound inner strength that guided him through, and also informed his music-making.
“King David,” as he was sometimes called, was one of the most-recorded violinists of all time; as with Heifetz, half the violin repertoire could be included among his essential recordings. He was an undisputed master of the great concerti. His Brahms with Klemperer and the French National Radio Orchestra is an incredible melding of might, thrust, and songful sincerity. One of his own favorite recordings, the Brahms Double with cellist Pierre Fournier, accompanied by Galliera and the Philharmonia Orchestra, is a friendly clash of titans. His Sibelius, with Ehrling and the Stockholm Festival Orchestra, is impulsive and imaginative, and his deeply-felt Dvořák,with Kondrashin and the USSR Radio LSO, one of the best recordings of the piece. He recorded the Tchaikovsky many times. His performance with Konwitschny and the Staatskappele Dresden shows how, where Heifetz wolfs down the piece in a most exciting manner, Oistrakh chews things over in a more considered way.
Playing sonatas with pianist Frida Bauer, Oistrakh sounds particularly inspired. The Debussy is a marvel of subtle detail and flautando colors, the Janáček passionate to the point of desperation, the Brahms G Major magically weightless and unceasingly lyrical. In the Mozart B-flat Sonata, K. 454, performed with Paul Badura-Skoda, Oistrakh goes the extra mile to play long stretches of notes up bow, for maximum lightness. His Ysaÿe Ballade is beautifully shaped, without concern for technical difficulties. He saves some of his juiciest playing for short pieces such as the Kodály Three Hungarian Folksongs.
A special category of the Oistrakh discography consists of authoritative renditions of Soviet masterworks which he premiered, performed with their composers, or both. These have served as templates for all later performers. Concertos include the Kabalevsky, conducted by Kabalevsky with the State Symphony of Russia; the Khachaturian, with Khachaturian and the Philharmonia Orchestra; Shostakovich’s First, with the composer’s son Maxim and the New Philharmonia; and Shostakovich’s Second, with Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic. Sonatas include the Shostakovich with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, the Prokofiev F minor with Richter again, and the Prokofiev D Major, transcribed from its original flute version at Oistrakh’s suggestion (and performed with Vladimir Yampolsky.) There is also Shostakovich’s haunting E minor Trio, with Shostakovich as pianist and Miloš Sádlo on cello. Finally, for those who never realized their lives were missing a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade with a major soloist as concertmaster, Oistrakh’s rendition, with Golisanov and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, will bewitch.
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