Rudolf Barshai, who has died at his Swiss home, aged 86, was the best viola player in Russia. He had a long friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who called him one day in the summer of 1975 with technical questions about the instrument. When Barshai asked what he was composing, Shostakovich replied ‘a sonata, for you’. It was to be his final work.
The last sound Shostakovich wanted to hear
November 4, 2010 by Norman Lebrecht
Barshai had already applied to leave the country and was officially an outlaw. The sonata, opus 147, was published and performed in Moscow with a dedication to Feodor Druzhinin, viola player of the Beethoven Quartet.
Out in the wide world, Barshai fulfilled his ambitions to be a conductor, working with many orchestras though never achieving star status. His finest moments on record are with a German youth orchestra with which he performed Mahler’s fifth symphony and his own realisation of Mahler’s tenth. Both are legends among Mahlerians and his score of the Mahler tenth is gaining widespread acceptance. It is probably as close to what Shostakovich would have done, had he accepted a 1941 invitation to complete the work.
For more details see Why Mahler? and Elizabeth Wilson’s Barshai interview in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.
There is a rather lovely picture of Barshai with a bemused look on his face as his friend Yehudi Menuhin demonstrates his yoga skill of standing on his head.