Rudolf Barshai’s death severs another connection to the glory days of Russian-Soviet music-making. Born in a Cossack village, Barshai was a Borodin Quartet member before that ensemble acquired its name. Its 87.5 per cent Jewish line-up was no asset in Stalin’s Russia and Barshai’s career was complicated by bouts of state-sponsored anti-Semitism: in 1976 he would emigrate to Israel. In better times considered the leading viola soloist in the USSR, he had the use of a Stradivarius that once belonged to Vieuxtemps. He played in Julian Sitkovetsky’s Tchaikovsky Quartet and made chamber music with Leonid Kogan.
Barshai founded his Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955, a part-time venture that quickly evolved into an innovative, ultra-professional unit. In smaller Baroque works the performers stood, except for the cellists. When the band visited the UK in 1962 Barshai not only appeared as violist alongside Yehudi Menuhin in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante but directed both the MCO and Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra in a remarkable EMI recording of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. A recent boxed anthology from Brilliant Classics showcases the band in varied fare, including Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. Eventually Barshai’s obsessive rehearsals proved alienating - like many brilliant players, as conductor he was better musically than he was technically. More sinister restrictions were imposed by the KGB. Once in the West his name was removed from Soviet history books.
Studious and media-unfriendly, Barshai enjoyed a less refulgent Indian Summer than his old colleague Mstislav Rostropovich. He fetched up in Bournemouth as artistic advisor (1982-88) and was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (1985-88). In 1993 he returned to Russia to conduct Mahler’s Ninth, a high-profile engagement immortalised on CD (BIS). Less publicised encounters with the Cologne Radio Orchestra and Junge Deutsche Philharmonie engendered a distinguished Shostakovich symphony cycle and acclaimed accounts of Mahler’s Fifth and Tenth (Brilliant Classics). Barshai’s long-pondered realisation of Mahler’s swansong reminds us that a crucial third thread in his career was his skill as an arranger, applied most famously to Shostakovich Eighth Quartet, most effectively to Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives.