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
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
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.