Sheila Fitzpatrick reviews 'Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet music and imperial competition during the early Cold War, 1945–1958' by Kiril Tomoff

The Soviet violinist David Oistrakh made a triumphant tour of Australia in 1959, a few years after his wildly successful New York début. Along with pianist Emil Gilels and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, he was the spearhead of a campaign to show the capitalist world how cultured the Soviet Union was, and to demonstrate that their violinists and pianists were the best.

American historian Kiril Tomoff tells the story in Virtuosi Abroad, and it is one that – unusually for an American scholarly work – has quite a substantial Australian component. But more of that later. Soviet interest in high culture and its diffusion to the masses goes back to the earliest days of the revolutionary state, but it was not until the 1930s that the Soviets started to focus specifically on winning international music competitions in the West. When Oistrakh won the Ysaÿe competition for violinists in Brussels in 1937, it made the front page of Pravda. The matter was so important that the list of Soviet competitors for such competitions came before the Politburo for approval.

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Published in November 2016, no. 386