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RUDOLF BARSHAI

Rudolf Barshai was born in Labinskaya, in the Krasnador district of the Soviet Union. At the Moscow Conservatory he studied the violin with Zeitlin, the star pupil of the legendary Leopold Auer, and the viola with Borisovsky, as well as conducting with Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatory. He commenced his career as a viola player in 1945, founding the Philharmonic Quartet of Moscow, now known as the Borodin Quartet, and subsequently playing in the Tchaikovsky Quartet, which was led by Yulian Sitkovetsky. He was a Laureate in the 1949 Festival of Youth at Bucharest. During this period Barshai played chamber music with the most outstanding instrumentalists active in the Soviet Union, including Gilels, Richter, Leonid Kogan and Rostropovich.

In 1955 Barshai turned to conducting and founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. This was the first ensemble of its type in Russia and made its debut after six months of intensive rehearsal. Under Barshai’s direction it became an outstanding example of its genre, and helped to introduce much music of the Baroque and Classical eras to Russia as well as contemporary repertoire that was then virtually unknown. As part of this process Barshai arranged many works for chamber orchestra, including Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives and the String Quartet No. 8 of Shostakovich, which became known as his Chamber Symphony. A close colleague of Shostakovich, Barshai conducted the première of that composer’s Symphony No. 14 in 1969. The Moscow Chamber Orchestra toured widely and first visited the United Kingdom in 1962. Renowned for its exceptionally high musical standards, it recorded extensively for Melodya, the Soviet state recording company, and for both EMI and Decca in the West.

From 1967 onwards Barshai increasingly conducted symphony orchestras throughout the USSR. Ten years later, in 1977 he emigrated from Russia to Israel, directing the New Israel Orchestra for two years until 1979, and the Israel Chamber Orchestra until 1981. From 1982 to 1988 he was chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1988. He also served as principal guest conductor of the Orchestre National de Radio France, the principal French radio orchestra, during 1987 and 1988. As a guest conductor he has appeared with most of the major orchestras in Europe and America, including the London Symphony, Philharmonia and Vienna Symphony Orchestras. More recently he has worked closely with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has recorded the entire cycle of Shostakovich symphonies, and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, with whom he has given notable performances of the music of Mahler, of which Barshai is an outstanding interpreter.

Noted for his meticulous and thorough rehearsals, Barshai seeks in his performances to achieve the greatest clarity and musical focus possible. The results are extraordinarily powerful, allowing the music being played to speak with often unanticipated power and directness. A modest individual, wholly devoted to realising the composer’s will, Barshai has a self-effacing manner which may have denied him the full recognition that his performances warrant and which he deserves. His extensive discography is fortunately a testament to his unique abilities as a musician, both as a distinguished string player and as a conductor of unusually penetrating insight. Highlights include, with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, complete cycles of the Mozart and Beethoven (but without No. 9 ‘Choral’) symphonies, and as accompanist, a legendary recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with Emil Gilels. With the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra he recorded a powerful account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, and the three piano concertos of Tchaikovsky, with Peter Donohoe as soloist. His accounts of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos 5 and 10 (the latter in his own orchestration) with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (Young German Philharmonic Orchestra) have received high praise. Barshai has also recorded works by little-known Russian composers including Alexander Lokshin, a pupil of Myaskovsky, and Mieczysław Weinberg, a contemporary of Shostakovich.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

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