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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Glinka, Prokofiev, Shostakovich
, Nikolaj Znaider (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor), Barbican Hall, 4th November, 2004 (AR)

Mstislav Rostropovich's all-Russian programme opened with a brash account of Mikhail Glinka's Overture: Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842). Although conducted with passionate attack, it was nevertheless a performance which lacked finesse, with the London Symphony Orchestra playing on the same unvaryingly loud level throughout.

Things greatly improved with an extraordinarily subtle and refined performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No 2 played by the tall and handsome virtuoso Nikolaj Znaider. With the Allegro moderato Znaider produced a mellow tone evoking a distilled sensation of distance and insularity, giving the music an added poignancy. This was in perfect harmony with the LSO horns who produced a rich warm resonance. In the middle movement, Znaider's mood switched to an almost coy shyness, playing inwardly with delicate intricacy, giving the music a golden glow. In stark contrast, his tone in the concluding Allegro was gutsy, played with zestful humour, although the rather camp castanets gave it a Spanish flavour foreign to the rest of work. Throughout Rostropovich and the LSO gave sensitive support.

In the dark light of President Bush's recent re-election it was rather apt to hear a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, Op. 65; composed in 1943 during the siege of Leningrad, and dealing with the brute violence of totalitarianism and militarism, it can seem a relevant work even today. Rostropovich's deeply moving account was one of the most violently intense I have ever heard (as well as the longest). The strings in the opening Adagio were dark, rich and sustained, and despite Rostropovich's slow tempi, the music had great momentum. Here there was a sense of melancholia and a looming, distant threat. Christine Pendrill's cor anglais evoked a lost soul crying in the wilderness. The central climax in the Allegro non troppo was pure terror, with the march-like timpani and brass savagely characterized and the bass drum thuds giving the sensation of decapitation. This only served to emphasise the shivering sense of desolation produced by the ensuing subdued strings and cor anglais pining from afar.

Rostropovich made the Allegretto sound gruff and hysterical with the woodwind appropriately shrill, especially the piercing piccolo of Sharon Williams. The percussion were manic and brutal, culminating with a daringly measured three final thuds. The Allegro non troppo had extra weight for being played slightly slower than usual: here the strings were gutsy and heavy and the trombones punchy and raucous. The final gong and bass drum strokes were eviscerating in their savagery.

One of the highlights of the concluding movement was Rachel Gough's bassoon solo which shone out like a ray of hope. After the final shattering percussive deathblows, the music became almost folk-like but with an eerie sense of dark, sardonic humour; played with chamber-like intimacy, it slowly faded into nothingness.

This intensely well-played, highly charged and emotionally exhausting account was even superior to Rostropovich's National Symphony Orchestra (Washington DC) recording on Apex Warner 0927-498850-2 and was thankfully recorded for the 'LSO Live' label.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63; Maxim Vengerov (violin); London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor): Teldec 0630-13150-2

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65; Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg; Valery Gergiev (conductor): Philips: CD: 446 062-2


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