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In Memoriam: A Tribute to Maestro Rudolf Barshai

Moscow International House of Music", November 19, 2013.
Art November" International Arts Festival

Dear friends,

I am delighted that today I have this opportunity to address you, true lovers of music, the Moscow public that Rudolf Barshai loved and valued so much, the public that he missed from the moment he left the country to his very last day.

I do not know how to write “ceremonial” texts. I had the good fortune to be close to an extraordinary musician, an immensely talented, deep and big-hearted person. He shared his life, his thoughts, and his work with me. I want Rudolf Barshai to come back to Russia. It was his dream. I would like to thank all the like-minded people, Barshai’s students and followers, all our friends, whose help and contribution to the cause of bringing his name and oeuvre back to Russia and preserving his memory has been invaluable: Vladimir Spivakov, Valery Polyansky, Nikolai Azarov, Oleg Dorman, Natalia Rubinstein and a multitude of others. It is also my pleasure to thank Alexander Rudin’s Moscow Chamber Orchestra “Musica Viva”, which is taking part in today’s concert.

This autumn in Moscow, the third autumn since Rudolf Barshai’s death, has turned out to be a true time of remembrance, a “Barshai autumn”. It saw the publication of “The Note”, a book of his memoirs of childhood and adolescence, of colleagues and teachers, which were recorded in the autumn of 2010 in our home in Switzerland by the film director Oleg Dorman. An epic event took place at the Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory on November 5 – the first performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in Barshai’s completed version to be given in Moscow. When I handed Barshai’s score to Valery Polyansky, I could not have imagined how perfect this performance would be! And the day after that, on November 7, also at the Great Hall of the Conservatory, the State Chamber Orchestra – Barshai’s orchestra – now headed by the remarkable oboist Alexei Utkin, performed a concert in memory of Rudolf Barshai, that is now a November tradition. Finally, today’s evening at the House of Music completes this sad and wonderful month.

Today’s concert programme is by no means accidental: it is composed of works that are all in some way connected to Rudolf Barshai and his life. Thus, when contemplating this event, I knew right away that it had to start with Bach’s music. “I believe that, if there is anything important that I was able to do in my lifetime, something I would think of as I stand in front of God, it is for two things. The first one is Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue”, and the second is Mahler’s Tenth. … I have to admit that when I was working on these two compositions, I was truly alive, I was breathing oxygen, air. It was life itself for me. The rest was secondary. … I thank my fate, I thank God that I was given a chance to work with this great music.” (Rudolf Barshai. Quoted from “The Note” by Oleg Dorman). Barshai’s musical education started with Bach’s Siciliana, and the story of his orchestra with the Brandenburg Concerto. The first time he heard me perform the Dorian Toccata and Fugue, he fell under the spell of this music, he could not let go of the idea of the never-ending ascent. The constant striving to keep going up, higher, without any respite, was just like Rudolf Barshai’s life, dedicated solely and honourably to serving Music. Barshai was planning to orchestrate the Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor and the Prelude and Fugue in С major, but ran out of time.

Even as a young man, Barshai was “obsessed with arranging” music for orchestra. Today his re-interpretations and instrumentations are considered some of the best. His chamber symphonies, born out of quartets by Beethoven, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Ravel, his arrangements of five string quartets by Shostakovich (the first, third, fourth, eighth and tenth) have entered the classic orchestral repertoire and are performed all over the world. Barshai considered orchestrating and completing Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” and reconstructing Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony his life’s work.

It may be hard for you to believe that up to the middle of the 20th century, only three or four concertos from Vivaldi’s enormous body of work were performed in Russia,” Barshai explained when telling the story of his orchestra. “Our goal was to create an infallible mechanism of performing polyphonic music. First and foremost, Bach and Vivaldi, and then Haydn, Mozart, etc.” The Moscow Chamber Orchestra’s first concert took place at the Conservatory’s Small Hall on April 2 1956. Along with Bach’s suite and Couperin’s concerto, the programme included two works by Vivaldi, the Concerto Grosso and Concerto for Four Violins, as well as a symphony by Vivaldi’s contemporary Manfredini.

At the heart of the first half of today’s performance are two concertos by Antonio Vivaldi arranged for the organ and dedicated to Rudolf Barshai.

It was categorically banned [in the Soviet Union] to perform any kind of music that could possibly be considered religious. What battles we had to endure! I explained that it was music that belonged to the entire mankind; that it was unfair to keep it away from our public… There were times when I was able to make an arrangement, but on one condition: there would be no singing in Russian or Russian translation. That was how we were able to perform ‘Stabat Mater’, Pergolesi’s masterpiece, which he composed shortly before his death at the age of 26. This composition is dedicated to a mother who is mourning her crucified son. The audience’s response was extraordinary. The fact that our public was able to hear this music became such a big event that when another, no less important event occurred – Gagarin’s journey into space – Andrei Volkonsky, a talented musician and my friend, joked that the Soviet authorities had performed their own ‘Stabat Mater’”. (Rudolf Barshai. Quoted from “The Note” by Oleg Dorman).

The second half of the programme presents Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”, his last and best-known work. “Stabat Mater” (from the Latin, “stood the mournful mother”), with verse by the Italian Franciscan friar Fra Jacopone da Todi, tells of the Virgin Mary’s sorrows during Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. This Catholic hymn is one of the composer’s most inspired works.

It was thanks to Rudolf Barshai that this music was first played for Soviet audiences. In the 1970s, Barshai’s Moscow Chamber Orchestra performed Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” with the boys’ choir of Viktor Popov’s Academy of Choral Arts. This cooperation lasted for more than 30 years. In Russia and Europe we performed Bach’s “High Mass” and his “St. John Passion”, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Missa Solemnis”; Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony was recorded with a German orchestra and the Academy’s Bass Choir. Finally, in May 2002, at the Great Hall of the Conservatory, the Moscow premiere of Alexander Lokshin’s First Symphony (Requiem) took place.

For a number of years Rudolf Barshai headed the panel of judges at the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Exhibition in Parma, and Viktor Popov was one of the judges. A remarkable American conductor Dorian Wilson was one of the winners of this competition in the 1990s. Later he became Barshai’s pupil and a friend of our family. Today, Dorian Wilson is a famous conductor, who performs all over the world and works with the best orchestras and opera productions. I believe that to some extent, we have to thank Barshai for that. Dorian Wilson will be conducting today’s performance of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” in memory of Rudolf Barshai.

I wish that those who have come to today’s concert, both those who cherish the great musician’s memory and those who have never heard of him before, having been born after he left Russia, as well as those who first encountered Rudolf Barshai in Oleg Dorman’s documentary and those who are now reading the book with a feeling of nostalgia, recognizing the long gone era in music… I wish that all of you, my compatriots and contemporaries, will learn as much as possible about this great musician. I am convinced that there will come a time when everything written down by Rudolf Barshai will be published, and we will once again hear the magical sounds of an orchestra conducted by our great countryman.

Elena Barshai