Coming from a relatively poor family in Odessa, David Oistrakh had no hope of acquiring a decent instrument until he was well into his career. When he turned up at the initial rehearsal for his Leningrad debut in 1928 with his factory-made violin – which he liked to call a ‘Samovari’ – one of the string players in the Philharmonic told him: ‘Young man, one doesn’t come to Leningrad with such a fiddle.’ (‘David Oistrakh: Conversations with Igor Oistrakh’, Viktor Yuzefovich.)
Oistrakh had other mediocre instruments before being loaned a Strad from the Russian State collection in time for the 1935 Wieniawski Competition, where anti-Semitism contributed to his placing only second. This was the 1736 ‘Yusupov’ Strad once owned by a noble Russian family – the last in the line, Prince Felix II, was involved in the assassination of the mad monk Rasputin. As part of his Wieniawski Competition prize Oistrakh was proud to receive a 1934 violin by the Polish luthier Tomasz Panufnik, father of the composer. In the late 1950s the ‘Yusupov’ was passed on to Leonid Kogan, who made his American debut with it in 1958 – it can be heard on Kogan’s record of the Khachaturian Concerto with the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux, as well as Oistrakh’s earliest discs.
In 1947 Oistrakh was loaned the 1719 Strad that had been played by the Nazi violinist Gustav Havemann. It was war loot, ‘acquired’ when the Russian army entered Berlin in 1945 and passed to the state collection in 1946. No wonder that when Oistrakh took the violin on his first trip to America in 1955 and was asked about it at a press conference, he denied knowing the violin’s name, or anything about its previous history.
It was this controversial Strad that Oistrakh used for the world and American premieres of the Shostakovich Concerto, as well as his Leningrad and New York recordings of the work. While in America he bought the first Strad he actually owned, the ‘Bérou’ of 1714 once played by Jacques Thibaud; then in Paris in 1959 he traded up to the ‘Conte De Fontana’ of 1702, of which he wrote: ‘It sounds wonderful in concert halls holding 6,000–7,000 people.’ His final Strad, bought in 1966, was the ‘Marsick’ of 1705, associated with the Belgian violinist who taught Thibaud and George Enescu. ‘It was because of the timbre that father was so interested in the “Marsick”,’ said Igor Oistrakh.
Although he flirted with a 1737 Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ and enjoyed playing Paganini’s 1734 ‘Il Cannone’ in Genoa in 1957, Oistrakh was a Stradivari man through and through. His tone would not have sounded the same on the darker ‘del Gesù’ instruments and the slightly smaller size of many of them did not suit him. Like all great violinist–teachers, he could pick up a pupil’s instrument in class and create a wonderful sonority on it, but playing a Strad was one of the rewards of the immense hard work he put into his vocation.