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Oistrakh, Artist of the People?
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon
With Igor Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Rozhdestvenski and Gidon Kremer
Produced in 1994
MEDICI ARTS DVD 3073178 [c.75:00]
Experience Classicsonline


His loyalty was such that, even though on many occasions we spoke and I said “Look, you could settle in the West quite easily and be as well off”... “But no!”, he said, “I owe this regime, whatever its faults, my life. They gave me my musical upbringing and that’s where I am. I’m loyal to Russia, to the land, to the people, and to whoever was [sic.] in power”... He’d have been just the same to the Tsar.  [Yehudi Menuhin]

Reputation is a fickle thing.  While that of the “violinist of the century” Jascha Heifetz has generally fallen since his death, that of his great Cold War rival, the Soviet Union’s premier fiddler David Oistrakh, has remained rock solid.  Indeed, as more and more “unofficial” and off-air recordings have come to light, the latter’s stock has risen seemingly inexorably.

Bruno Monsaingeon’s film looks at Oistrakh’s life and career, focusing in particular, as he tells us in the booklet notes, on four themes: What is a “great” violinist?; David Oistrakh, “homo Sovieticus”; The family man; and The teacher.  The last two of these are relatively straightforward topics, while the first has since been addressed by Monsaingeon at rather greater length in his film The art of violin (available as an NVC Arts DVD 8573-85801-2).  Perhaps inevitably, therefore, the main interest in this earlier documentary is on its subject’s relationship with the Soviet authorities.

Twentieth century artists, faced with working under the aegis of totalitarian states, have chosen to cope in a variety of ways.  Toscanini refused utterly to compromise and not only ceased working in, but became a vocal opponent of, both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.  Others – Furtwängler, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich – kept any disapproval internalised while continuing to work, in varying degrees, with the governing regime.  And while many musicians of lesser ability curried favour with brutal regimes in the hope of advancing their careers, there was also a handful of major talents who appeared supportive: Mengelberg, Kabasta and Mravinsky come to mind, while the jury remains out in the cases of, among others, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan.  [See the fascinating Bel Canto Society DVD Great conductors of the Third Reich: art in the service of evil BCS-D0052.]  

Oistrakh’s attitude was very cautious.  On this film Rostropovich recounts an episode where his friend suggested they go for a walk – hence moving out of range of any bugging devices – before telling the cellist that he admired his libertarian attitudes but was simply too frightened to display them openly himself.  According to Rostropovich, Oistrakh had been traumatically affected by an episode where every single male living in his apartment block was arrested one by one by the secret police, so that he and his wife would lie awake at night in terror waiting for the dreaded knock at the door.

Apart from sheer fear, Oistrakh’s conformity and political docility was reinforced by his need for money.  Appearance fees and prize money were, as the film shows, themes running constantly through his letters home to his family, especially early in his career when he was actually allowed to keep them (the rules were quickly changed, however, so that the cash went to the Russian state which then gave its artists back a meagre allowance.)  With the Soviet state controlling, thereafter, his and his beloved family’s very livelihood, Oistrakh was not going to be a man to make unnecessary waves.

But if money was as important to him as all that, could not Oistrakh have moved permanently to the West as Yehudi Menuhin, quoted at the head of this review, tells us he often suggested?  Well, quite apart from the practical difficulties likely to ensue (Rudolf Nureyev was prevented from seeing his family again for nearly 30 years after defecting to the West), Oistrakh was also by all accounts a great patriot with a love of his country so marked that it overcame any perception of its faults.  He was not alone in that.  Orlando Figes’s masterly study The whisperers: private life in Stalin’s Russia (London, 2007) details several such instances where people chose not to take advantage of the opportunity to abandon their homeland, in spite of all the horrors being perpetrated there, simply because it was their mother country.

So can we, after all, describe David Oistrakh as a true “artist of the people”.  He certainly – in spite of a wall covered with awards and a chest covered with medals - seems to have been an unpretentious and, indeed, quite homely soul.  It is quite clear, too, that he was an immensely popular artist within Russia.  And the Soviet authorities certainly claimed him as a model of socialist achievement in all their propaganda – not least to home audiences.  But I imagine that the question-mark in Monsaingeon’s title is supposed to make us ponder whether Oistrakh’s apolitical public stance really did serve the Russian people’s real long term interests in the way that the openly-displayed dissident attitude of, say, Rostropovich did.             

We are left, at the end of the film, without a clear answer – if, indeed, it is possible to reach one at all in such morally murky waters.  But what we are left with is a wealth of film clips demonstrating David Oistrakh’s sheer artistry. 

Admirers of great playing will no doubt already have some of this material on their shelves. An EMI Classics double DVD set DVB 5996859, for example, usefully collects together the Brahms, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos as well as works by Lalo, Beethoven and Locatelli, while the classic 1965 account of the Brahms double concerto with Rostropovich and the Bach concerto for two violins with Menuhin are to be found on DVB 4904499.   But Monsaingeon has been an eager toiler in the archives and has come up here with a great deal of rarely-seen material, all of it adding to our appreciation of Oistrakh’s technique and his art. 

My own favourite is a brief extract from what appears to be a completely bizarre – not to say utterly bonkers – bit of Soviet newsreel.  It begins with a lavish fireworks display over Moscow that suggests some sort of lavish national celebration (and although it would be wonderfully satisfying to fantasise that it might be marking that murderous monster Stalin’s death in 1953, it’s more likely to have been something like his birthday).  We then enter a large concert hall where we find about a dozen of the Soviet Union’s leading violinists, led by Oistrakh with his chest full of glittering medals, and a similar number of lady harpists who presumably also represent the crème de la crème of their own profession.  Together – helped by a wildly enthusiastic conductor and a most energetic percussionist – they attack a completely over-the-top arrangement of one of Rachmaninoff’s op.23 preludes as if there really were no tomorrow.  A superb example of the use of art as propaganda, it really does have to be seen to be believed and manages to tell us, in just 70 seconds or so, far more about the mad society in which David Oistrakh was forced to live and perform than any words could possibly do in its stead.

Rob Maynard


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