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9.11.10

Side Notes: Rudolf Barshai Has Died

Rudolf Barshai, the Russian conductor, composer, arranger, and violist has died at the age of 86 in his home in Switzerland. He was a founding member of the Borodin Quartet with which he played for eight years. (Dmitri Shebalin then took over that spot for the next fourty-some years.) Since the Borodin Quartet was the primary interpreter of—and collaborator with—Shostakovich on the latter’s quartets, Barshai got to know the works and the composer well. This should serve him well when he arranged five of the quartets (opp. 49, 73, 83, 110, and 118) as chamber symphonies. The arrangement of the First String Quartet is not included in his recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but that’s still the version to pick up (if you don’t already have it in Decca’s Concerto & Orchestra Suites box.)

Barshai led his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra (they premiered Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony) but he never held particularly important conducting posts, either in the Soviet Union or after his emigration, in 1977. The closest he came to one were his six years (’82 – ’86) as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where Paavo Berglund was one of his predecessors and Litton, Kreizberg, and Alsop among his successors. He guest-conducted much, however, and of course it was often his expertise in Soviet repertoire—especially Shostakovich—that was wanted from him. That led to a complete Shostakovich cycle with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra at a time when the only other easily available cycle was that of Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw. Terrific performances, gripping, gritty interpretations, and an unbeatable price made it an instant classic at a time where only very few recording milestones were still produced. Whenever discussed (as here, or here) it shows that these recordings still hold up well, even though a glut of Shostakovich Cycles (Jansons, Kondrashin, Rostropovich, Caetani, Ashkenazy,Maxim Shostakovich, Kofman, Kitajenko, partly Gergiev, ongoing Vasily Petrenko, Slovak) has been issued and re-issued since 2002 .

Mahlerians noticed Barshai when he released a Fifth with the Young German Philharmonic on a very obscure label that was hyped to receive cult-status. What made that Fifth so very appealing afterwards was its coupling on Brilliant Classics with a tremendous—in fact my favorite—complete version of the Mahler Tenth… Barshai’s own version. I think it was among the obituaries (Globe & Mail, The Telegraph) that I’ve read that version described as sounding like Shostakovich’s might have, had the latter agreed to do it. It’s a good description and it’s good news that both, the Tenth and the Fifth, are now available again on Brilliant. Both are worth picking up; both are worthy to remember Barshai by.

When Rudolf Barshai died on November 2nd, he was apparently working on an orchestration of Bach’s Art of the Fugue*. What I don’t know is whether he died during the orchestration of Contrapunctus XIV

[* See comment]

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Barshai played viola for the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K.364 with Menuhin and the Bath Festival on EMI
-the best EVER!

jfl said...

I have that recording somewhere... Unfortunately not nearby, or else I'd pull it out and listen to it remembering Barshai. The photo 'beneath' the very first link in this piece will lead to a photo of the two together, at Bath.

Anonymous said...

Barshai completed the arrangement of The Art of Fugue a day before being admitted to the hospital for observation in September.