Rudolf Barshai: Viola player and conductor whose career continued to flourish after exile from the Soviet Union

Rudolf Barshai was one of the last surviving members of the cohort of great Russian musicians who came to prominence in the middle of the last century, among them Gilels, Oistrakh, Richter and Rostropovich. Barshai will be remembered chiefly as a conductor, but he first made his mark as a violist, and for two decades was as predominant a player as Yuri Bashmet in more recent times.

Barshai was born in the village of Stanitsa Labinskaya (today Labinsk), in the Krasnodar region northwest of the Georgian border. Having got through a seven-year music course in only two, he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1938; there he studied violin with Lev Zeitlin (making him a "grand-student" of Leopold Auer), conducting with Ilya Musin and composition with Dmitry Shostakovich.

It was Barshai's desire to establish a string quartet that led him to the viola: he could not find the player he wanted for the group and so picked up the instrument himself, taking instruction from Vadim Borisovsky, who raised the stature of the viola in the USSR rather as Lionel Tertis did in Britain.

When the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet made its debut in 1945, its members – all students of Mikhail Terian, the violist of the Komitas Quartet – were Rostislav Dubinsky and Nina Barshai, Rudolf's first wife, as first and second violin, with Barshai the violist and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – who left after only two weeks, to be replaced by Valentin Berlinsky, who remained for 60 years.

Shostakovich formed an early relationship with the Quartet, coaching them in his string quartets – only three by 1946 – and partnering them in his Piano Quintet, then still in manuscript. At rehearsal one day Barshai misjudged an entry and came in a fraction too late. Shostakovich's reaction was typically generous: jumping up from the piano, he said "Please, keep it like that", and so the score was amended.

By 1953 the Quartet enjoyed such national standing that it played at the funerals of both Stalin and, later on the same day, Prokofiev, both of whom had died on 5 March. The musicians were shunted between the ceremonies in an ambulance – but neither engagement was paid. Now Nina and then, in 1954, Rudolf left the Quartet, which took on the moniker of the Borodin Quartet. Rudolf – newly married to his second wife, the painter and costume-designer Anna Martinson, daughter of a famous Russian comic, Sergei Martinson – joined the Tchaikovsky Quartet, whose leader was Yulian Sitkovetsky (father of the violinist and conductor Dmitry). This new ensemble was not to last: in 1956 Sitkovetsky was diagnosed with lung cancer and died only two years later, aged 32.

By then Barshai was active as a conductor, having founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955, acting at its head as long as he remained in the Soviet Union. Its repertoire stretched back to the Baroque – unfamiliar in Russia at the time – and forward to Barshai's contemporaries. Mieczyslaw Weinberg was one: his Second Sinfonietta and Seventh and Tenth Symphonies were written for Barshai; so, too, was Boris Tchaikovsky's Chamber Symphony. The biggest feather in his cap was the premiere, in Leningrad in September 1969, of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. The MCO, said Shostakovich, was "the greatest chamber orchestra in the world".

When the Soviet authorities permitted, Barshai toured with his orchestra. Their first visit to Britain came in 1962, on which occasion he recorded the Mozart Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, with Yehudi Menuhin the other soloist. On that visit the MCO joined the Bath Festival Orchestra that Menuhin had founded in a performance and esteemed recording of Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

But Barshai was Jewish, and semi-official anti-Semitism repeatedly reared its ugly head. Goskonzert, the state concert agency, would receive requests for Barshai to conduct abroad and turn them down without consulting him; on other occasions he was not permitted to join the MCO on tour abroad. The KGB even went as far as poisoning his third marriage, to Teruko Soda, a Japanese translator, feeding her rumour while he was away.

Soviet artists, Barshai complained, were like pieces on a chessboard, unable to control their own destiny, and he applied for permission to spend a year working abroad. The authorities forced his hand, refusing him permission to go unless he left the country altogether. And so he did, emigrating to Israel in 1976. He then became a non-person in the USSR: all mention of him vanished, even from his own recordings. Shostakovich had intended to dedicate his last work, the Viola Sonata, to Barshai – but the composer's death in 1975 and Barshai's emigration the next year meant that the dedication and the privilege of the first performance went instead to Fyodor Druzhinin.

In the west Barshai's star continued to shine. He worked with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, serving as chief conductor until 1981, and then from 1982 to 1988 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; for three years from 1982 he was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He also guest-conducted the London Philharmonic. He settled in Switzerland, where in 1999 a Camerata Rudolf Barshai was founded; Barshai, naturally, was asked to conduct it.

Relations with his western musicians weren't always harmonious – the German writer Bernd Feuchtner, who worked with Barshai on his (still unpublished) memoirs, found that in rehearsals "he could be quite brusque throughout: he was of the old school, but it was always delivered in a friendly tone – and he was always right! Everything that was external, decoration, show, was anathema to him; he was direct and simple". Barshai was, Feuchtner recalled, "like all really great artists, a modest man, who never made any fuss about himself. He was music through and through".

With Kyrill Kondrashin Barshai had been one of the two conductors responsible for presenting Mahler's music to Soviet audiences, and in 1993, after the fall of the USSR, he returned in triumph for a series of concerts, one featuring the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Ninth Symphony, a performance released by the Swedish label BIS. Many other Barshai recordings were fêted by the critics, chief among them his cycle of the 15 Shostakovich symphonies with the West German Radio Orchestra (on Brilliant Classics).

Barshai's arrangement of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet as a chamber symphony for strings had earned its composer's enthusiastic endorsement, and in later years he went on to arrange the Third, Fourth and Tenth Quartets in the same way, as also the piano suite Visions fugitives by Prokofiev, with whom he had enjoyed long discussions about orchestration. In 2000 he completed the scoring of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, which he recorded in 2004; a year earlier he prepared a string-orchestra version of the Ravel String Quartet for the Scottish Ensemble. In his days with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra he had arranged and recorded Bach's Musical Offering and Art of Fugue, and he revised the latter, completing it in the teeth of ill health days before his death.

Three of Barshai's four marriages had produced a son, and he was a caring father: though his three children were spread across the globe, his touring allowed him to see them frequently. His fourth marriage, to the organist and harpsichordist Elena Raskova, lasted over 40 years, and they often welcomed visiting musicians to their house in the Swiss mountains.

Martin Anderson

Rudolf Borisovich Barshai, violist and conductor: born Stanitsa Labinskaya, Krasnodar region; married firstly Nina Markova (one son; marriage dissolved), 1954 Anna Martinson (one son; marriage dissolved 1963), thirdly Teruko Soda (one son; marriage dissolved), fourthly Elena Raskova; died Basel 2 November 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness