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Conner Riddle Songs

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Rudolf Barshai: The Note - A lifelong quest for one single note
A film by Oleg Dorman
TV Format 16:9
Sound PCM Stereo. Languages E, D, F, R
Region Code 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS DVD 2059528 [90:00]

This is, in effect, a reflective monologue focusing on the life and times of violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai. Sixty hours of conversation were recorded, in Russian, over a period of ten days. A few weeks later Barshai died.

Filmed in his Swiss mountain home, he looks back wryly and penetratingly over his long life and each of the thirteen chapter headings follows a train of thought or a passage of life: Mahler's Tenth Symphony, Beethoven and Shostakovich; Difficulties with the Communist State; Emigration, and so on. The monologue is not really linear and certainly not chronological. Instead, he casts his mind widely, and the structure imposes some chronological markers along the way. Thus we begin with his recollections of his Cossack mother - 'Jewish by faith' - before turning almost immediately to his astonishment at hearing the Ormandy's Philadelphia recording of the Mahler/Cooke Tenth. 'But it didn't sound right' adds Barshai, thus beginning a long quest of his own to complete the Tenth.

Despite his freedom in the West, to his last days he admitted that having to leave the Soviet Union was an open wound for him. His teachers in Moscow had given him a 'new life' - Tseitlin, Borisovsky, Yampolsky among them. Some reflections animate other thoughts; as a soldier he came across a group of German soldiers in a clearing but edged away; one of them, he says, could have been a future Heine. He played at the funeral services of Stalin and Prokofiev - on the same day. Like some other musicians he could do without an audience; he knows what ideals he wants to realise, and these aren't dependent on a listening audience. It's not a sterile approach, more the view of the wholly focused idealist-executant. He offers advice on conducting, noting that hands must be expressive (this much we know) and not 'angular' - a good word. His relationship with the Communist party was always prickly. Officials pressurised him to join the party - he did not - or to denounce Israel, which he also did not. He reflects on the great musicians he had known, Oistrakh and Richter, his greatest friend, among them. He venerated Goethe, and also Beethoven. The travails of his marriages are touched on without embarrassment.

We hear that it was Maria Yudina who prodded him in the chest and told him to work on his immense completion of Bach's Art of Fugue - a point of view that Shostakovich shared. If he had done anything to justify himself before God, he says, it was his work on Bach and Mahler. We hear about Shostakovich, naturally, since Barshai conducted the world premiere of the Fourteenth Symphony. We don't hear very much about his many years with the Borodin Quartet.

The meaning of the film title, The Note? It's the note he sought to find in the Mahler, an illegible blotted note. 'It's going to be a G flat' he decided, and with that his work on the symphony was transformed. It feels like a moment, for him, of almost mystic revelation. The film ends with some discreet shots of Barshai's funeral.

Invariably there's an autumnal element to this film, sensitively shot, quixotically ordered. Barshai though remains quietly but indomitably himself and far from lamenting his death one feels moved by a life fully lived, candidly remembered and unselfconsciously revealed.

Jonathan Woolf