Posts Tagged: Rudolf Barshai


1) Since posting my Addenda to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Concert (below), the renowned Russian conductor and arranger Rudolf Barshai has passed away.  Mr. Barshai was one of many to arrange Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet for string orchestra, but his was the only one to receive Shostakovich’s express approval.

2) The critics (the good ones at least) found out what I’ve known since the tender age of 19: that “A Quiet Place” just isn’t Lenny’s finest work.  In fact, it’s not really even very good.  OK, let’s admit it: it’s a klunker.  And the really unfortunate thing is that when he interpolated his earlier opera, “Trouble in Tahiti”, into the flow of the later work, it just served to emphasize the genius of 40’s and 50’s Lenny and the unfortunate turn that 80’s Lenny had taken.

[Ed: the above picture is not in any way meant to illustrate an “unfortunate turn”.  Quite to the contrary, it’s actually a portrait of perfection.  Which will work against the ensuing argument, but it’s still a great picture.]

But I actually find something very inspirational in “A Quiet Place”, because it makes Lenny more human.  As Stephen Sondheim says, the main thing he learned from Lenny is that if you’re going to fall off the ladder, fall off the highest rung.  And it turns out that Lenny wasn’t perfect!  He fell hard.  Although I think he would have made a great fireman. [That’s a reference to the aforementioned “ladders”. And just a general comment.]

3) Speaking of Maestro Sondheim, I put my entire life on hold for 2 1/2 days so I could read his new book of collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat.  It’s every bit as brilliant as you’d expect it to be, and also more.  It is a vivid insight into the mind of a genius.  It makes you feel like you’re sitting right next to Mr. Sondheim himself and he’s explaining to you everything you ever wanted to know.  Since the lyrics in this volume only run through 1981, it also leaves you begging for more.

Which brings me to a particular post-1981 Sondheim lyric, and a particularly cheeky end to this blog post.  I’d like to share with you something that recently dawned on me.  Actually, I’ll challenge you to find it for yourself.  See if you can you discover the hidden libertarian message in this song:

Here’s a clue:

Although I have a feeling that these two pieces reach slightly different conclusions…

Civic Addenda

Well, it’s happened again – preparing for a talk at Symphony Center, I’ve come across way too much material for my allotted 30 minutes.  Here are extra insights on the October 31, 2010 concert of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.  To the various concert attendees who found their way here after hearing my talk – Welcome!  Do feel free to peruse the rest of my web site, always being aware that it does not in any way represent the Chicago Symphony or Civic Orchestras.

Shostakovich, Chamber Symphony (1960)
(String Quartet No. 8 arranged by Rudolf Barshai for String Orchestra)

The Chamber Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich began life as his 8th String Quartet – the version that we hear in concert by string orchestras is simply an arrangement by the Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai.  More than any other Shostakovich Quartet, the Eighth seems particularly suited for this kind of expanded treatment.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet is a sort of mix tape of previous compositions, woven together with his “signature motto”, the notes DSCH as in Dmitri Schostakovitch  (This actually requires a lot of explanation, and it requires us to pretend we’re German musicians for a moment: the German note name system calls our E-flat “Es” – hence the use of the letter “S” in this motto; similarly, the Germans refer to our note “B” as “H” for some reason.  Also, you’re going to have to go German in the spelling of Dmitri’s last name, since American’s tend to prefer the spelling Shostakovich with no “c”.)

Here is the opening of the Quartet, with that exact motive in the cello part:

This is the theme that will connect the vast array of quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works.  Here they all are, in order:

1.) First Symphony (1926)

The original, a playfully sardonic duet for trumpet and bassoon:

In the quartet the music is slowed down, sounding old and weary:

2.) Fifth Symphony (1937)

The tune, deep in the horns, bold and Wagnerian:

In the quartet appears in the first violin, timid and demure:

3) Second Piano Trio (1944)

Originally, Shostakovich gave this Jewish theme a delightfully eerie “oom-pah” rhythm, creating a soft, macabre folk dance:

In the second movement of the quartet, the same tune is presented in a diabolical frenzy:

4) First Cello Concerto (1959)

The only difference between the original:

and the quartet version:

is the instrumentation.

5) The Young Guard (1948)

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the literature about the next quotation.  The quote itself is minuscule – a four-note motive from Shostakovich’s score for the 1948 film “The Young Guard”:

This motive itself comes from a revolutionary song which features prominently in the plot of the movie.  In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see a group of young girls who have been imprisoned by the Nazis for their resistance during World War II (these are in fact the Young Guards of history).  As they sing this anthem, they defy their captors and work up the courage to fight back; the young men in the next cell over join in:

When it appears in the quartet, the four-note motive is cut short by three violent bow strokes:

The internet being the mind-boggling thing that it is, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube (in Russian and German, without subtitles):

Part I: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Part II: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

6) “Tortured by Grievous Unfreedom”

This is the only quote in the piece that is not from one of Shostakovich’s own previous works.  It is a revolutionary song, said to be Lenin’s favorite.  There is a wonderful page that contextualizes this song in terms of Russian Revolutionary music here.  There is a page devoted to this particular song in its many iterations here (in Russian).  It goes a little something like this:

and it’s used in the quartet like this:

7) Katerina’s arioso from the fourth act of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:

which itself sounds a little bit like a mixture of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:

and “Bess, You is my Woman Now” from Porgy & Bess:

and is used in the quartet like this:

Recommended Reading

  • David Fanning: Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (2004) – google books
  • Michael Mishra: A Shostakovich Companion (2008) – google books
  • Richard Taruskin: Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997) – google books

Recommended Recordings

For anyone who has even a moderate interest in the Shostakovich String Quartet repertoire, I would seriously recommend dropping 42 bucks at the Amazon mp3 store (50 bucks on iTunes) and buying the recordings of all 15 Shostakovich Quartets by the confusingly named “Beethoven” Quartet.  These performers collaborated extensively with Shostakovich himself and gave the premieres of several of his quartets including the Eighth.  You could also spend just 5 bucks and get the Eighth Quartet individually. Amazon, iTunes

For a more recent, fast, polished, full-throttled reading of this piece, I highly recommend the Emerson Quartet’s recording. Amazon, iTunes

As for recordings of the Rudolf Barshai-arranged “Chamber Symphony” version, it’s very difficult to find one in which both the orchestra and the conductor seem to be in the spirit of the piece: often, the technical demands of the string writing are too difficult for and entire orchestra to play together up to tempo, or the conductor indulges too much in Shostakovich’s ‘mood music’.  One recording that I highly recommend is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s reading with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. iTunes

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 (1888)

OK, so I totally geeked out on the Shostakovich stuff, so just watch this and enjoy it: