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Igor Oistrakh

This piece was written last year to honour the great Ukrainian violinist Igor Oistrakh who died in 2021.

Igor Oistrakh - In Memoriam

The death of violinist Igor Oistrakh (1931-2021) - a great loss to classical music

The Ukrainian violinist Igor Davidovich Oistrakh, who died in August 2021, was one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. Born in Odessa to the pianist Tamara Rotaryova and violinist David Fyodorovich Oistrakh (Eustrach), he belonged to a family of violinists regarded as some of the finest in the history of the instrument and his father is also regarded as one of the top two or three masters of the instrument of all time.

By Eugenia Russell

Odessa, the family home of the Oistrakhs, in the early 1900s.

David Oistrakh, was the son of a Jewish merchant and amateur violinist. The Oistrakhs were merchants of the second guild, the middle guild in Russia whose scope was limited to domestic trade. As well as restrictions on movement, Jews had to pay an additional tax and a fee appropriate to their guild. Music was one of the few other professions open to Jews in Soviet Russia and David’s father had given him a tiny violin as a small child to get him started. David’s burgeoning talent meant he was able to support his family for several years as an itinerant violinist before he started gaining recognition. During his later career he established close friendships with other musicians of Jewish descent such as Isaac Stern and Nathan Milstein, as well as the poet Iosif Brodsky and Victor Hochhauser, who became the impresario for David and Igor, introducing them to western audiences.

Father and son shared the same teacher, Pyotr Stolyarsky, founder of the Odessa School of violin playing, who fostered a deep love of music in them. In addition to his formal training at the Central Music School in Moscow, after which he made his first public performance in 1948, and at the Moscow Conservatory (1949-55) Igor received invaluable tuition from his father whenever he found the time. In 1952, Igor won the International Wieniawski competition in Poland, and this opened up opportunities for giving concerts outside of the Soviet bloc. In 1953, his gave first concert in the West in London, delighting his audience with the performances of concertos by Beethoven and Khachaturian that would establish him as a soloist in his own right. The Oistrakhs were not limited to the violin, they were also gifted viola players and conductors, and often Igor performed under the baton of his father. David and Igor championed several works by composers who wrote idiomatically for the violin and naturally, many Russian composers. The family collaborations in different combinations spanned three generations with the inclusion of Igor’s son Valery (Valerio). For example, Igor played violin and David the viola in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and amongst their collaborations on two violins were Henryk Wieniawski’s Études-caprices, Pablo de Sarasate’s Navarra, Eugène Ysaÿ’s Poème and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.

When playing together, David and Igor complemented each other, each bringing their musicianship to the fore. Igor, known as Garik to his friends, was noted for his cool, modernist approach to performance: always controlled and never over-emotional. His playing is characterised by precision and clarity. By contrast, his father David, noted for the richness of his tone, has been described as ‘seraphic’. Though Igor had a different approach from his father on the concert platform the pair had to forge a common path in Stalin’s Soviet Union in order to navigate the world stage. They achieved that goal together, becoming known to music lovers as ‘King David and Prince Igor’.

Igor particularly shone in the Bach Double Violin Concerto, which he had begun playing with his father in 1947, performed by the pair in London and Manchester in 1961. They recorded the work several times, most notably in 1959 in Moscow (Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai) and for Deutsche Grammophon the same year along with the Vivaldi double violin concerto. Igor repeated the feat with Valery at the Barbican Centre to mark the 50th anniversary of his London debut. Igor and Valery have performed Bach’s triple violin concerto with Yehudi Menuhin and Igor further collaborated with Menuhin on Bartok’s Duo for two violins. On three occasions Igor attended the music festival founded by the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals in Prades in the French Pyrenees in 1950 appearing alongside him. One of his greatest accomplishments was the recording of the complete Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas for violin and piano accompanied by his wife, Natalia Zertsalova.

Igor pursued a vocation as a teacher alongside his career as a concert artist, beginning as his father’s assistant at the Moscow Conservatoire where he eventually became a professor. After the fall of the USSR he moved to Brussels where he became professor at the Koninklijk Conservatorium in 1996.

The Oistrakh family’s Jewish roots were to influence the delicate artistic balance they had to strike living under Communist rule. During the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, while pursuing their musical ambitions - playing some cutting edge music and becoming famous in the west – they had to appease The Union of Soviet Composers and its General Secretary, Tikhon Khrennikov, favoured by Stalin. Khrennikov was a known opponent of ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, and especially intellectual Jews.

Notwithstanding the many challenges, the Oistrakhs remained loyal to their country and did not defect to the West like many other Soviet-era musicians. In 1994, Igor collaborated with several other musicians including Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Gidon Kremer on a documentary about his father’s life that reveals much of the ‘unspoken private suffering’ of their life and times.


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