Shostakovich and Oistrakh

In 1948 David Oistrakh was almost 40 and recognised as the greatest string player in the Soviet Union, although World War II and the Cold War had delayed his international career. He already had numerous fine works dedicated to him, but as he sat in Dmitri Shostakovich’s apartment, listening to the composer play his new concerto, he realised it outdid everything else that had been written for him.

His violinist son Igor, who was present, recalled: ‘Dmitri Dmitrievich sat down at the piano and played the score with a virtuosity which itself would have been admirable – how he played the whole score of the Scherzo without leaving out a single note of the violin part remains an enigma to me even now – if he had not been so deeply moved by the music.’

Then the prize was snatched away. In March 1948 Shostakovich was the chief victim of the infamous decree from Stalin’s cultural Rottweiler Andrei Zhdanov, in which he, Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian were condemned for ‘formalism’. The blow fell while Shostakovich was working on the concerto and although he went ahead and finished it, on further consideration he decided to put it away and wait for less stormy times.

Not until autumn 1955 did Shostakovich venture to have the now-revised concerto performed. Oistrakh duly received the dedication and the honor of introducing it, but rehearsals with Yevgeni Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic were strenuous. The concerto was vast, in four movements with a massive cadenza connecting the great Passacaglia and the fourth movement. Even Oistrakh, built like a boxer and renowned for his resilience, protested: ‘Dmitri Dmitrievich, please consider letting the orchestra take over the first eight bars in the finale to give me a break, then at least I can wipe the sweat off my brow.’ A contrite Shostakovich replied: ‘Of course, of course, why didn’t I think of it?’ He made the changes overnight and the premiere on 29 October was a delirious success.

Oistrakh was about to undertake his first American tour. He took the concerto with him and gave the US premiere on 29 December, with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Dimitri Mitropoulos. At the second performance his E string snapped as he was starting the finale and he had to swap violins with assistant concertmaster Misha Rosenker.

The British premiere, on 23 February 1956 with the Philharmonia and Nicolai Malko, was even more eventful, as Oistrakh had to leave the stage during the Passacaglia because his violin needed attention.

  • David Oistrakh, The Tully Potter Collection
  • David Oistrakh, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Dmitri Shostakovich, The Tully Potter Collection
  • David Oistrakh, Dmitri Shostakovich & Sviatoslav Richter in 1969, The Tully Potter Collection

On his return, he restarted the Passacaglia and reached the end without further mishap, whereupon the applause was so uproarious that the finale had to be repeated. Oistrakh made the first two recordings, in Leningrad with Mravinsky and in New York with Mitropoulos. Collectors are still arguing over which is the better.

Tully Potter