thu 24/09/2020

Farewell, Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010) | reviews, news & interviews

Farewell, Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010)

Farewell, Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010)

"Who?" many readers may be asking. You'll have to take it on trust - and a handful of outstanding recordings - that the Russian conductor, viola player and arranger, who died on 2 November aged 86, really was up there among the musical greats of his generation. He played with Rostropovich, Richter and David Oistrakh; he had as close a line to Shostakovich as any recreative artist. But he was no globetrotter following his emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel in 1976, and, as yet another of those "musicians' musicians", he rarely stepped into the limelight.

A founder member of the great Borodin Quartet in 1945, he often played Shostakovich's chamber works close to their premieres. As he told Elizabeth Wilson in her indispensible book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the Borodins were rehearsing his Piano Quintet with the composer at the keyboard when Barshai, who should have come in simultaneously with the cellist Berlinsky, entered too soon - only to be told by Shostakovich that he preferred it that way, which is how the passage appeared in later editions of the score.

In 1969, as the conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra responsible for introducing so much earlier music to Russian audiences - their Vivaldi and Bach are extraordinary - Barshai inspired and gave the first performance of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony, his controversial "songs and dances of death" which met with so much official opposition. Barshai will probably remain best known for his arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet as the Chamber Symphony for strings. There's also his transcription of Prokofiev's piano miniatures, the Visions Fugitives, originally issued as the B-side to the Moscow Chamber Orchestra's historic collaboration with Menuhin's Bath Festival Orchestra in Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

Following his emigration, he made a brief flourish at the head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and gave many memorable performances during his years with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (I have a treasured tape of their Shostakovich Eighth Symphony). Yet it was only in the last years of his life that he left a major legacy on disc, the cycle of all 15 Shostakovich symphonies with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. The interpretations of the Fourth and Thirteenth Symphonies have not been surpassed, at least not in the kind of sound the German engineers provided.

At the time of his death, he was still working on his most treasured project, an orchestration of Bach's Art of Fugue. He is nearly the last of the Russian musicians with such a unique link to an extraordinary past; only Galina Vishnevskaya survives him.

Listen to Rudolf Barshai conducting his Moscow Chamber Orchestra in his arrangement of the first of Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives:


Barhsai's completion of Mahler's tenth symphony is a very interesting take on the work, and the flute passage near the beginning of the last movement is played, on his own recording, with staggering beauty and tenderness. It is a great shame that he was not a more frequent visitor to this country – I would have very much liked to have heard him conduct Mahler and Shostakovich in concert.

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