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1Oth Anniversary of the death of Rudolf Barshai

The great Russian conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai died on 2 November 2010 at the age of 86. In 2020 we are to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death.

Barshai was born in Russia on 28 September 1924 and studied viola and composition at the Moscow Conservatory with, among others, Dmitri Shostakovich. After first giving concerts as a violist, forming a string trio with Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonid Kogan and being a member of the Borodin Quartet from 1945 to 1953, he founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955, of which he was conductor and director until his emigration to Israel in 1977. He then conducted numerous international orchestras, including the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor from 1982 to 1986. He has lived in Switzerland since the late 1980s.  

One of Barshai’s striking features was his tightly cut black moustache, which towards the end of his life contrasted starkly with his white hair. Anyone who met him was immediately fascinated by his elegance and his incomparable liveliness in speaking.   

Barshai's emigration to Israel in 1977 had many motives, some of which were related to Shostakovich, whom he admired. For example, the conductor Barshai had managed to get Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 op. 135, written for him and his Moscow Chamber Orchestra, performed against fierce resistance from the political authorities. At the International Shostakovich Days in Gohrisch, which was only newly founded in 2010, Barshai was to be presented with the Gohrisch International Shostakovich Prize in the first year of its existence. His illness and sudden death prevented this, so the prize was awarded posthumously.  

Rudolf Barshai became particularly famous for his sensitive and authentic arrangements of chamber music works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. His ingenious interpretation of Dmitri Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet op. 110 can be termed a particular success achieving great popularity worldwide under the name Chamber Symphony op. 110a. Shortly before his death, he crowned his life's work with a fundamentally new version of his 1960s orchestral arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Art of the Fugue". With few exceptions, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements are published by the music publisher Hans Sikorski. Barshai was closely associated with Shostakovich until his death in 1975. When Barshai asked the composer for permission to arrange the 8th String Quartet, Shostakovich immediately gave his consent and finally had the work included in his catalogue of works as op. 110a. “Shostakovich was a god to us”, said Barshai once, “he was so clever and such a great musician”. 

Barshai’s handling of the original artwork was extremely subtle.  He did not falsify the sound world of the original with a single note but gained completely new perspectives from it. Little known are his ingenious arrangements of Beethoven's string quartets op. 59,1 and op. 74 as well as of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 op. 11. 15 pieces from Sergei Prokofiev's piano cycle "Visions fugitives", which he had written for his own use between 1915 and 1917 and whose title he took from a quotation by the symbolist Konstantin Balmont, were arranged for string orchestra. Barshai arranged 12 parts from Prokofiev's ballet music "Romeo and Juliet" not for a string orchestra but for large orchestra. In his famous Shostakovich arrangements, Barshai sometimes chose a string orchestra - then again, a chamber orchestra.  

Selection of works by Rudolf Barshai: 

Ludwig van Beethoven / Rudolf Barshai 
- Chamber Symphony for Chamber Orchestra op. 59, 1a after the String Quartet No. 7 op. 59/1 
- Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra op. 74a after the String Quartet op. 74 

Sergei Prokofiev / Rudolf Barshai 
- Vision fugitives. 15 pieces for string orchestra op. 22a 
- “Romeo and Juliet”. Scenes from the ballet for orchestra. Suite in 12 parts 

Dmitri Shostakovich / Rudolf Barshai 
- Chamber symphony for string orchestra op. 118a after the string quartet no. 10 op. 118 
- Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra op. 110a after the String Quartet No. 8 op. 110 
- Chamber Symphony for Chamber Orchestra op. 83a 
- Chamber Symphony for Chamber Orchestra op. 73a after the String Quartet No. 3 op. 73 
- Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra and Celesta op. 49a after the String Quartet No. 1 op. 49 

Peter Tchaikovsky / Rudolf Barshai 
- Andante cantabile for string orchestra 
- Chamber symphony for string orchestra op. 11a after the 1st string quartet op. 11           


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