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The last sound Shostakovich wanted to hear

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.

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.
73573_Rudolf Barshai - portrait.jpg
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  1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff says:

    Sad news indeed. But don’t forget to mention Barshai’s outstanding Shostakovich cycle with the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Surely one of the most consistently outstanding complete sets of the Shostakovich symphonies there is, and one which, strangely enough, I only just finished listening through.

  2. Not many know that Barshay (Barshai) was the violist in the Borodin Quartet for eight years just after the second world war.

  3. Victor Eskenasy says:

    Quite sad and the funeral will take place tomorrow.
    But for the record the story of Alto Sonata is different. On July 1st 1975, Shostakovitch called Fedia Druhjinin, the altist of Beethoven Quartet, asking him technical advise on his new „idea of writing a sonata for viola”. On 5th they discussed about playing it with the pianist Mikhail Muntyan and on July 7th, Shotakovitch announced that the Sonata was ready… At the beginning of August, Druhjinin received the partition with the dedication and he answered with a letter written on 6/7th August. Shostakovich passed away on 9th and the duo played the Sonata at his home, an informal premiere, on September 25th, the anniversary of the composer.
    NL replies: The version above is the one given to me by Barshai. It sounds as if the two violists maintained parallel truths.

  4. David Wend says:

    Ihave enjoyed many recordings made by Maestro Barshai over the years. For me, his premiere recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony has never been equalled. He should also be remmebered as an outstanding instrumentalist and his own edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

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