The great Russian violinist, outstanding pedagogue and esteemed conductor, David Fyodorovich Oistrakh [Oistrach], was born in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) into a Jewish family of merchants of the second guild. His father was David Kolker and his mother was Isabella Beyle (née Stepanovsky), who later on married Fishl Oistrakh. At the age of 5, young Oistrakh began his studies of violin and viola as a pupil of Pyotr Stolyarsky [Stoliarsky]. In his studies with Stolyarsky he made very good friends with Daniel Shindarov, with whom he performed numerous times around the world, even after becoming famous, for students at Stolyarsky School of Music. He would eventually come to predominantly perform on violin.
In 1914, at the age of 6, David Oistrakh performed his debut concert. He entered the Odessa Conservatory in 1923, where he studied, also with Stolyarsky, until his graduation in 1926. In the Conservatory he also studied harmony with composer Mykola Vilinsky. His 1926 graduation concert consisted of J.S. Bach's Chaconne, Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata, Anton Rubinstein's Viola Sonata, and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. In 1927, Oistrakh appeared as soloist playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto under the composer's own baton in Kiev, Ukraine - a concert which earned him an invitation to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in Leningrad with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Nikolai Malko the following year.
In 1927 (or 1928), David Oistrakh relocated to Moscow, where he gave his first recital and met his future wife: pianist Tamara Rotareva. They were married a year later, and had one child, Igor Oistrakh, who was born in 1931. Igor Oistrakh would follow his father's path as a violinist, and eventually performed and recorded side-by-side with his father, including J.S. Bach's Double Violin Concerto (BWV 1043), which they recorded several times, and W.A. Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. In at least one of the recordings of W.A. Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, Igor Oistrakh played violin, while David Oistrakh played viola. David Oistrakh’s name attracted universal attention in 1937, when he won 1st prize at the Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels, in which 68 violinists from 21 countries took part.
From 1934 onwards, David Oistrakh held a position teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, and was later made professor in 1939. Some of his colleagues while teaching at the Moscow Conservatory included Yuri Yankelevich and Boris Goldstein. Oistrakh taught Oleg Kagan, Emmy Verhey, Gidon Kremer, Zoya Petrosyan, Victor Danchenko, Cyrus Forough, and his son Igor Oistrakh.
From 1940 to 1963, David Oistrakh performed extensively in a trio that also included the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and the pianist Lev Oborin. It was sometimes called the 'Oistrakh Trio.' Oistrakh collaborated extensively with Oborin, as well as Jacques Thibaud, a French violinist.
During World War II, David Oistrakh was active in the Soviet Union, premiering new concerti by Nikolai Miaskovsky and Khachaturian as well as two sonatas by his friend Sergei Prokofiev. He was also awarded the Stalin Prize in 1942. The final years of the war saw the blossoming of a friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, which would lead to the two violin concertos and the sonata, all of which were to be premiered by and become firmly associated with Oistrakh in the following years. Oistrakh's career was set from this point, although the Soviet Union was "protective" of its people and refused to let him perform abroad. He continued to teach in the Moscow Conservatory, but when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he went to the front lines, playing for soldiers and factory workers under intensely difficult conditions. Arguably one of the most heroic acts in his life was a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto to the end in the central music hall during the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 while central Stalingrad was being massively bombed by the German forces. However, other sources indicate that Oistrakh performed in Leningrad that winter. Whether Oistrakh performed in Stalingrad is unconfirmed.
David Oistrakh was allowed to travel after the end of World War II. He travelled to the countries in the Soviet bloc and even to the West. His first foreign engagement was to appear at the newly founded "Prague Spring" Festival where he met with enormous success. In 1949 he gave his first concert in the West - in Helsinki. In 1951, he appeared at the Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence, in 1952 he was in East Germany for the L.v. Beethoven celebrations, France in 1953, Britain in 1954, both with extraordinary success; eventually, in 1955, he was allowed to tour the USA. He appeared with major American orchestras and in recitals, winning enthusiastic acclaim. By 1959, he was beginning to establish a second career as a conductor, and in 1960 he was awarded the coveted Lenin Prize. His Moscow conducting debut followed in 1962, and by 1967 he had established a partnership with the celebrated Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
1968 saw wide celebrations for the violinist's 60th birthday, which included a celebratory performance in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory of the Tchaikovsky concerto, one of his favourite works, under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. David Oistrakh was now seen as one of the great violinists of his time, among such luminaries as Romania's George Enescu and Lithuanian-born Jascha Heifetz.
David Oistrakh suffered a heart attack as early as 1964. He survived and continued to work at a furious pace. He had already become one of the principal cultural ambassadors for the Soviet Union to the West in live concerts and recordings. After conducting a cycle of Johannes Brahms with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, he died from another heart attack in Amsterdam in 1974. His remains were returned to Moscow, where he was interred in Novodevichy Cemetery.
David Oistrakh is considered one of the pre-eminent violinists of the 20th century. His playing was marked, apart from a phenomenal technique, by stylistic fidelity to works by different composers of different historical periods. Soviet composers profited by his advice as to technical problems of violin playing; he collaborated with Prokofiev in making an arrangement for violin for violin and piano of his Flute Sonata. A whole generation of Soviet violinists numbered among his pupils.
Oistrakh received many awards and distinctions. Within the Soviet Union, David Oistrakh was awarded Two Orders of Lenin (1946 and 1966), Order of the Badge of Honour, twice (1937 and ?), the Stalin Prize (1st class) in 1943, the title of People's Artist of the USSR in 1953, and the Lenin Prize in 1960. He was also awarded Honoured Artist of the RSFSR and won the 1935 Soviet Union Competition. Several reputable works from the standard violin repertoire are dedicated to Oistrakh, including a concerto by Khachaturian, two concerti by D. Shostakovich, and several other pieces. Oistrakh's fame and success were not only limited to the Soviet Union: he placesecond at the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw during the same year, only being bested by 16-year-old prodigy Ginette Neveu, and further improved upon that by winning the grand prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. Abroad he also received the titles of Grand Cross of the Order of the Lion of Finland (1966) and Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold II (Belgium, 1967). Additionally, the asteroid 42516 Oistrach is named in honour of him and his son, the violinist Igor Oistrakh.
David Oistrakh is known to have played on at least seven Stradivarius violins owned by the Soviet Union. He initially selected the 1702 Conte di Fontana Stradivarius, which he played for 10 years before exchanging it for the 1705 Marsick Stradivarius in June 1966, which he played on until his death. Oistrakh used bows by Albert Nürnberger and Andre Richaume throughout his life. Up until 1957, he used a Nürnberger bow. "The Andre Richaume bow bought by his son Igor Oistrakh in 1957 had filled David with such enthusiasm that Igor made a gift of it." Oistrakh had remarked that this (Richaume) bow gave him great satisfaction, so much so that when in Paris, he had to meet Richaume in person.
There are numerous releases by the great David Oistrakh, whether in the LP days or on CD. The trouble was that his recorded legacy - one of the most extensive in history by any violinist - has been made accessible through a multitude of labels, often in a haphazard fashion, and even more often for a very short time. The new 10 CD-box includes a splendid selection of live recordings by Oistrakh made in the USSR between 1939 and 1968 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra, with some of the foremost conductors of the day (Alexander Gauk, Kirill Kondrashin, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Kurt Sanderling).