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Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 & Symphony No 10
LSO/Rostropovich Vengerov
Barbican, London 25 January 2006

Shostakovich's music comes to us with so much political baggage accreted that it is hard to listen to it just as music, and reactions are bound to be subjective (as to large extent is all concert reviewing).


For fuller reviews of the second of three consecutive performances of this concert (Brescia, Italy and two at the Barbican) there is Hilary Finch's poetic capitulation in The Times; for one in greater depth and with some reservations try Classical Source.


I attended the last of the three and the orchestra seemed to have settled down; I was not bothered by slips and flaws as others had been. I reacted oppositely to the concerto and the symphony.


I was totally enthralled by Vengerov's domination of the concerto, and the full tone of his marvellous Strad, which had the live balance at onece truthful and sounding better than you'd ever trust the ministrations of recording engineers. It was great to be present in a truly packed house - every seat filled on one of those nights with the press restricted to one ticket each (frustrating not to be able to share reactions with one's partner - usually on those occasions one finds oneself surrounded with empty seats close by)!


The enthusiasm for Vengerov, who drew all eyes and ears, was complete - rightly so.


The Tenth Symphony brought doubts, and by the end I felt alienated from the acclamation for that work and for Rostropovich (whom I've rarely admired on the rostrum equally as with his cello, which is less often to be heard nowadays). Visually one saw him conducting slow music with expressive hands, and the fast, noisy stuff with a baton. But I was unable to avert my eyes from the dominant image, a conductor long associated with this music who had his head buried in the score, looking most preoccupied with turning the pages as the music swept on!


How can it be that, with an orchestra which knows it well, he could not have steered it by memory?


The Tenth was cited in the programme notes as the composer's finest symphony; I'd go for the Fourth as the only one I can listen to at all often. I was engrossed by the long slow first movement, with its small and subtle step by step development of the malleable material, but - lacking the surprise of first meeting - the angry, noisy second sounded to me just noisy and angry, portrait of Stalin or not. I noted from the commentary in the programme that the little 5-note horn call in the penultimate movement alluded to the intitials of the composer's then girl-friend; five unchanging notes repeated and repeated; signifying undying love...?


By the end I had confirmed my repugnance to Shostakovich's grandiosity and hammering into our heads his thoughts and the experiences of Soviet Russia's non-conformist artists, and my own drifted to medical concern for damage to the players' ears (q.v. the inauguration by the ABO this week of a Healthy Musicians Charter).


The final peroration of the equivocal finale, with its hollow jollity subject to conflicting interpretations, was guaranteed to bring the capacity audience to its feet for a standing ovation with the great Rostropovich at the helm and the largest cymbals struck four times!


Feeling the odd one out, I reminded myself to stick with the quartets , and to avoid hearing the symphonies too often in this centenary year! See my review of the Aviv String Quartet last week, my fulsome praise endorsed by all the critics; four musicians far more effective than a hundred in getting across the troubled message of an uncompromising Soviet musician's inner thoughts.

© Peter Grahame Woolf