Memories of David Oistrakh

Rimma Sushanskaya shares memories of her tutor and mentor, the renowned classical violinist David Oistrakh. Rimma was David’s last student at the Moscow Conservatoire.

Introductions

“As a child, I loved the beautiful sound of his recordings and performances”

Legendary violinist David Oistrakh was known in the Soviet Union and abroad as King David for his great art of violin playing.

As a child, I loved the beautiful sound of his recordings and performances. They were warm and sweet and would leave an impression for days. I still remember the first recording my parents bought me of him performing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

As my solo career progressed over the years, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that one day I would become David Oistrakh’ s last pupil. Without my knowing it, however, Oistrakh was a jury member at two performances I gave at the Moscow Conservatoire. I later discovered he was impressed by my performances. I could not believe my luck and when I was given the opportunity by the Ministry of Culture of the USSR to continue my studies at the Moscow Conservatoire with a professor of my choice, this gave me the confidence to request David Oistrakh. When he said yes, it was one of the happiest days of my life.

The autumn of 1971 was a very exciting time. David Oistrakh was actually on a concert tour when I enrolled at the Moscow Conservatoire so I was to play for his assistant, Professor Peotr Abramovich Bondarenko. I chose to play unaccompanied works by Bach, Ysaye and Paganini, and was quite nervous. Part way through, he stopped me with a smile and said it was enough and added, speaking to some other students in the room, that nobody in Moscow could play Ysaye so well. That felt like a very a good start!

Teaching style

My first meeting and lesson with David Oistrakh went like a dream. During the lesson he was very kind, but firm; demanding, but with a certain charm and sense of humour and I felt more and more comfortable. We worked on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sonata- Ballade No.3 by Ysaye. I was able to learn a great deal; Oistrakh brought my attention to the phrasing, using various kinds of bowing and fingering, which made the music sound more interesting and fresh. For him, in terms of technique, sound was the most important part of making music.

Oistrakh was a great inspiration to me. I remember him describing to me a picture of the beautiful and proud river Vltava as we worked on the second movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. When I studied one of Mozart’s last sonatas, he paid attention to the tiniest of details in the Adagio of the first movement. Every note, every phrase, every rest had to be carefully examined. And at the end it had to sound most natural and lively. All of that taught me how to work towards achieving musical perfection.

I particularly remember that he seemed to be in love with his Strad, holding it in his hand the whole time and using it every so often together with verbal explanation. Without any warming up he could play beautifully and by heart any part of the Concerto or the Sonata. It was marvellous to see and to hear him at close hand.

Award success

Our lessons continued every month and after official auditions in early spring 1972, I was chosen together with three other young Soviet violinists to go to Czechoslovakia to represent our country in the International Violin Competition in Prague. I won first prize and the Ysaye Medal for best performance of his music. As a winner of the competition I received a big sum of prize money, but the KGB representative did not grant our Soviet group permission to stay during the festival and the next day we were sent home.

Two days later David Oistrakh arrived in Prague and during the press-conference he mentioned my victory, saying:

“There are many reasons why I appreciate the Prague Spring Festival. One of them is its boldness in giving performance opportunities to young people. For example, there have been a great number of Soviet artists for whom success in Prague opened many doors. This year the magnificent gallery acquired one more name: the winner of the Prague International Competition, Rimma Sushanskaya. I think there can be no greater happiness than helping young musicians.”
(From the Czech Magazine Swet socialismu – #23, 1972)

David Oistrakh really did not teach how to play the violin, but how to become a better musician and an artist. That’s why all the students in his big class at the Moscow Conservatoire were violinists of very high calibre. His assistant Peotr Bondarenko, who was also a wonderful musician, complemented him perfectly. Bondarenko was very helpful with solving technical problems the students experienced and was always a kind father-figure to all of us. He had to work very hard when Oistrakh was busy touring.

Now, when I look back at this very exciting period of my life, I can see more clearly what a wonderful, kind, modest and generous person David Oistrakh was. Despite being so busy with his artistic life, and with his health problems besides, he selflessly always found the time for us, the young musicians he believed in.

It was altogether an amazing experience!