David Oistrakh enjoyed a very rare privilege for a citizen of Soviet Russia: he was free to travel to the West. As a result, the whole world was able to enjoy his irreproachable technique and exceptional musical qualities. He has often been considered the twentieth century's greatest violinist.
David Fyodorovich Oistrakh was the son of an army officer and an opera chorus singer. From a very early age, he listened to opera rehearsals. At the age of five, he was given his first violin. His teacher was Pyotr Solomonovich Stolyarsky and Nathan Milstein was a fellow pupil. While not a child prodigy, he was very talented, hard-working and keen. The very rich cultural environment in Odessa was also a powerful driver for his development as an artist. He gave his first concert in 1923, playing a Bach concerto and Sarasate's Gypsy Airs. He did his first tour in Ukraine in 1925, then left the conservatory the following year. His programme choices were bold for a young soloist. He readily took on Bach's Chaconne and Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult Concerto No. 1, which had just been premiered in Paris in 1923. By the time he entered the major international competitions in the 1930s, he was already an seasoned violinist. In 1935, he came second in the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw, runner-up to Ginette Neveu. In 1937, he won first prize in the inaugural Eugène Ysaÿe Competition (which has since become the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition).
During World War II, David Oistrakh famously performed for the troops. In 1940, he founded a trio with Lev Oborin at the piano and*Sviatoslav Knushevitsky* playing cello. In 1942, he was awarded the Stalin Prize and in 1947, the Order of Lenin. At this point, his career took on an international dimension as the Soviet government gradually allowed him to give concerts in the West. In 1951, he appeared at the "Maggio Musicale" festival in Florence. In 1952, he travelled to East Germany for the Beethoven festival, then to France (1953), England (1954) and the United States (1955).
David Oistrakh became one of the greatest ambassadors of Soviet art in the world. In 1959, he made his debut as an orchestra conductor. However the frantic pace of leading a dual career around the world ruined his health. He had his first heart attack in 1964. And in 1974, after conducting a Brahms cycle at the head of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, he died from another heart attack at the age of 66. His body was returned to Moscow and buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.
David Oistrakh left a very copious catalogue of recordings that spans the entire violin repertoire from Bach to Prokofiev, and from chamber music to the concerto. He was very close to the composers of his time and premiered many works dedicated to him, including Khatchaturian's Violin Concerto in 1940, Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 in 1946, and Shostakovich's two Violin Concertos, respectively in 1955 and 1967. He is the father of the violinist Igor Oistrakh.
Six landmark dates in the life of David Oistrakh:
• 1923: first concert, in which he performed a Bach concerto
• 1937: First prize in the Ysaye Competition
• 1940: founded a trio with Lev Oborin and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky
• 1955: premiered Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1
• 1959: began a career as a conductor
• 1967: premiered Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 2
Six key recordings by David Oistrakh:
• Violin Concerto by Brahms, EMI, 1960
• 3 Concertos for Violin by Bach, with Igor Oistrakh, Universal, 1962
• Triple Concerto by Beethoven, with Rostropovich and Richter, EMI, 1969
• Violin Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 by Mozart, EMI, 1972
• Trio No. 3 by Beethoven, with Oborin and Knushevitsky, Melodiya, 1979
• Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, Melodiya
Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, November 2015