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 often heard his performances, first on the radio and recordings and later in concert halls. His playing attracted me then by his most beautiful sound, warm and sweet and a strong impression would stay with me for days. I still remember the first recording my parents bought for me of him performing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.
As my solo career was progressing over the years, I could never imagine even in my wildest dreams that one day I would become David Oistrakh’ s last pupil.
Whilst a young student at the Leningrad/St. Petersburg Conservatoire, I was chosen many times by the panel of Professors from the Conservatoire to represent Leningrad’s young musicians in various festivals, concert tours, competitions and auditions, sometimes outside of Soviet Union. And, without knowing he was present as a jury member, I performed twice in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in front of distinguished musicians including Oistrakh himself. Some time later, after these auditions, I found out from one of the Professors of the Moscow Conservatoire with whom I was well acquainted that David Oistrakh had been impressed with my performances. WOW! I could not believe my luck. Usually I was so shy ( but not when on stage performing).
By that time my Ph.D. studies were completed at the Leningrad/ St. Petersburg Conservatoire, where my mentor and Professor was Mark Komissarov, a wonderful violinist and musician of a generation younger than Oistrakh’ s. During this period 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. By that time I knew who that would be. But there still was one problem - how to get in touch with David Oistrakh and make my request.
It happened during Oistrakh’ s visit to Leningrad for concerts in the spring of 1971. After a wonderful concert he gave in Maly Philharmonic Hall I went backstage to congratulate him. As I was trying to introduce myself, he interrupted me, saying he knew who I was. That came as a shock, but at the same time it was a pleasant surprise. After that I felt a little bit braver, and later in conversation I asked him if he would agree to teach me. “Yes” was the answer! That was one of the happiest days in my life.
The autumn of 1971 was a very exciting time. After my arrival in Moscow, where I was staying with my aunt Lisa, my mother’s older sister, I went to the Conservatoire to officially enrol while David Oistrakh was away with his concert tour, and to meet his assistant, Professor Peotr Abramovich Bondarenko, who had never heard me playing the violin. So, here was yet another audition! I chose to play unaccompanied works by Bach, Ysaye and Paganini, and was quite nervous. When I finished the Ballade no. 3 by Ysaye and was preparing to continue with the Caprices by Paganini, 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 was good to know. And that was a good start.
My teaching and family commitments were in Leningrad and by that time I had my own students at the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music as a full time job. That’s why my arrangement with Moscow was to travel once a month for the sessions with David Oistrakh and Peotr Bondarenko.
Life for musicians in the Soviet Union was very tough, with tremendous competition everywhere, which kept everyone on their toes. With my wish to be recognised as a solo performer in the Soviet Union I had to try to win some of the international competitions. By pure accident the Prague International Violin Competition was chosen, which had more or less a programme of standard violin repertoire. Besides unaccompanied works by Bach, Paganini and Ysaye, the programme included music by Mozart, Dvorak, Suk, Tchaikovsky etc.
My first meeting-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 did work then on the Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sonata- Ballade no.3 by Ysaye. I think I was able to learn a great deal; David 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.
I felt very fulfilled and after the lesson I was able to analyse what had happened. Everything was done in a most positive manner, which helped me to gain more confidence , but at the same time to realise how much work needed to be done to get to a much higher level in my playing . He was a great inspiration to me and I did not mind hard work at all. I was also impressed with Oistrakh during the lesson as 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. It was all together an amazing experience!
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 (or Studio) at the Moscow Conservatoire were violinists of very high calibre. His assistant Peotr Bondarenko, who was also a wonderful musician, had somehow a different approach to his work with the students, which blended brilliantly with David Oistrakh’ s. Bondarenko was very helpful with solving various technical problems the students experienced and was always a kind father-figure to all of us. He had to work very hard with everyone when Oistrakh was busy touring.
From that time it was a new beginning for me, hard work but extremely valuable and rewarding. During every lesson with Oistrakh we had to work on the Sonata or the Concerto for the first time and for me it was like an opening of new horizons. Throughout the lessons he helped me to open up mind and emotions to produce a better interpretation.
I remember , when we had been working on the second movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, Oistrakh was trying to inspire my performance, describing to me a picture of the beautiful and proud river Vltava. And his encouragement helped me to find the right approach to the phrasing and the sound quality.
When I studied one of Mozart’s last sonatas, Oistrakh paid a lot of 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.
Once, when Oistrakh came to Leningrad for his regular performance in the concert series, he kindly invited me to the Philharmonic Hall for my lesson. I arrived happily and the lesson began. Oistrakh was staying in the nearby Hotel Europa and he did not bring his violin for my lesson. While we were working on Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G Minor for solo violin he wanted to show me some of his ideas and for that reason asked me to pass him my violin. During his demonstration on my violin his face showed great surprise and disappointment, as previously he had not realised that I had such a poor instrument.
My parents saved every penny to be able to buy this violin for me and it was precious to me too. My violin was made by an unknown Italian or Tyrolean maker, and although it was not good enough for an international competition, I learned how to bring the best out of it. After we continued the lesson Oistrakh told me I managed to produce a good sound. And we decided to keep my violin at least for the time being, also because it was risky to switch from one violin to another in a very short period of time as it takes quite a long time to get used to a new instrument.
So our meetings with the lessons continued every month and after official auditions in early spring 1972, first in Kiev, capital of Ukraine and soon after that in Moscow, 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 felt very fortunate to win First Prize and also the Ysaye Medal for best performance of his Music.
And on the final night , where together with the other winners I performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Czech Radio Orchestra, the Prague Spring Festival began. A good number of great performers were to arrive in Prague, and among them my favourite violinists Henryk Szeryng, Isaac Stern and David Oistrakh. As a winner of the Competition I received a big sum of prize money, but I did not get permission from our KGB representative to stay during the Festival and the next day our Soviet group was sent home.
Two days later David Oistrakh arrived in Prague and during the press-conference he mentioned my victory in Prague, 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 has 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 ).
Now, when I look back towards 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.
That was an unforgettable experience of my life!