Obituary: Victor Hochhauser

Musical entrepreneur who launched the careers of Soviet artists in Britain


He broke through the Iron Curtain to deliver great Russian artists to Britain, from pianist Sviatoslav Richter to ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, including Russian Jews persecuted by the Soviet ban on emigration to Israel.

Victor Hochhauser, who has died aged 95, was an impresario of legendary status. He engineered controversial visits by Soviet stars from the 1950s onwards and in the process dramatically transformed British culture.

He worked during the Cold War’s most opaque period — without public finance. Those he brought to Britain are today legendary: David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter as well as the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets and Chinese opera. A clever negotiator with the Russians, he also managed to spirit some out of their country, virtually parenting them in his own home on their arrival in the UK.

Hochhauser saw a window of opportunity when Stalin died in 1953 — the same day as Sergei Prokofiev, the great Russian composer whom he had persecuted. Seizing his chances, Hochhauser became the first impresario to launch Western tours by Soviet musicians and introduced audiences to such gifted composers as Dmitri Shostakovich, presenting his symphonies and concertos to British audiences for the first time. In 1954 he persuaded the Kremlin to allow the violinist David Oistrakh to visit Britain. Victor began visiting Moscow to secure the promotional trips of folk dance troupes and classical soloists.

Irritated at having to negotiate with the Jewish Hochhauser, who by now had all the major British orchestras under his belt, the Russians raised the artists’ fees by six times. But in 1957 came an Anglo-Soviet cultural agreement inspiring a whirlwind of musical exchanges, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s visit to the Soviet bloc countries under Sir John Barbirolli.

Hochhauser was not a solo operator. He and Lilian Shields, whom he had married in 1949, became a formidable team, working in the eye of such political storms as the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, diplomatic scandals and the persecution of Soviet Jews.

But for nearly 60 years the Soviets grudgingly offered Hochhauser a showcase for their gilded stars — who may have lived in a golden cage at home. However the Russian connection did not always run smoothly. Following the defection of Russian artists like Nureyev, Rostropovich, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and others in 1974, the Soviets broke off contact with the impresario for 15 years. “I became an unperson”, joked Hochhauser “in the manner of George Orwell’s 1984!”

Sometimes it was British objections that were raised. The former British PM Ted Heath, a musician himself, who well understood Russian ideology, once banned a Red Army visit arranged by the impresario. Another time the journalist Bernard Levin and playwright Harold Pinter sought to boycott the Bolshoi’s visits due to Soviet mistreatment of its Jews. They were not the sole protesters.

Hochhauser was often the butt of protests for “exploiting” Jewish musicians from their persecuting homelands, for which the public had to pay high prices. He parried such arguments by lauding the talents of his protegés like Oistrakh, which he felt justified everything. After glasnost in 1989, Moscow became far more open, enabling the glamour of Russian ballet tours to Britain to continue into the 1990s.

More than just a clever networker with a musical ear and commercial nose, Hochauser wanted to make the performing arts accessible to the general public. He popularised classical music through his Sunday evening concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and pioneered opera and ballet for the masses at London and provincial centres.

Born in Kosice, former Czechoslovakia, the son of an industrialist, he was a direct descendent of the Chatam Sofer, a leading 19th century Orthodox Rabbi of European Jewry. His father read the writing on the wall in 1938 and brought his family to Britain, although many other family members died in the Holocaust.

The young Victor was sent to the Gateshead seminary, later working as a London synagogue fund raiser. He met the British-born Lilian Shields when they were both working for the charismatic educationalist Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld in London, who had rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Dr Schonfeld asked him to organise a charity concert for the pianist Solomon. In March 1945 he took on the Whitehall Theatre, having borrowed £200 from his father. A series of sell-out concerts followed with a Sir Thomas Beecham season. Then came a Richard Strauss festival in which Strauss shared the conducting with Sir Thomas Beecham.

Soon the Hochhauser management was formed, promoting artists like Yehudi Menuhin. In 1948 he brought the Vienna Philharmonic to Britain with Bruno Walter and the orchestra’s former members,expelled in 1939 because they were Jewish. In 1949 Hochhauser set his sights on ballet, hiring the Empress Hall in Earl’s Court for Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Leonid Massine and Svetlana Beriosova, followed by Spanish flamenco dancers.

But it was after Stalin’s death that he launched the Western careers of great Soviet stars. Meanwhile the couple developed a strong attachment to Israel. They bought a house in Jerusalem and enriched Israel’s cultural life, too, staging festivals and bringing the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Britain. What is less well known about Hochhauser is his role as a conduit between successive British and Russian governments, fostering a nuanced political understanding. He is survived by Lilian and their four children, Daniel, Mark, Simon and Shari.



Victor Hochhauser: born March 27, 1923. Died March 22, 2019

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