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Arts: Classical: In spite of everything, life is beautiful

THE SECOND half of Rostropovich's massive survey of the work of his friend and mentor began with a contrasting pair of symphonies dating from during and just after the Second World War.

Shostakovich provoked bewilderment and some annoyance by approaching the perennial problem of a composer's ninth symphony in a characteristically oblique, witty manner, producing one of his most apparently carefree and light-hearted pieces - not at all what was expected from the leading Soviet composer, to celebrate a great victory. Even here, though, a deep melancholy lurks beneath the surface, as brought out beautifully by the lonely clarinet and brooding strings of the LSO in the second movement, and the lugubrious bassoon in the largo. Piccolos shrilled, brass and woodwind struck a suitably festive note and an extraordinary gear-change into the final allegretto heralded the concluding fierce rejoicings - but always with sharpness and humour.

The other side of the coin was apparent in the great Eighth Symphony. Here was all the terror and pity of war that Shostakovich was so evidently trying to forget in the Ninth. The LSO responded magnificently to Rostropovich's calm authority, maintained even in the most searing pages and fearsome climaxes of the opening adagio; the woodwind again distinguishing themselves in the cruelly high writing of the scherzo; brass and percussion were crushing in depicting a brutally insistent war-machine in the central march - "man deafened by the gigantic hammers of war", as the composer put it.

After the deadened sense of grief of the fourth movement, the reawakening of the lyrical impulse in the form of Shostakovich's favourite solo piccolo as the voice of the human spirit rising above the darkness was almost painfully beautiful. There was a tangible sense of relief when a bassoon announced the final pastoral allegretto; here again the composer took an oblique approach to the problem of creating an adequate conclusion to such a nightmare vision by melodies and dance rhythms that somehow add up to more than the sum of their parts. A release of tension - and a hint of hope for the future - but no facile optimism. A final tragic outburst preceded the circuitous approach to a final, hard-won, affirmatory major chord. In spite of everything, "life is beautiful", as Shostakovich himself said of his symphony.

The link through Rostropovich directly to the composer and the great and terrible events that gave rise to this music made this performance a specially moving musical and human experience.

Laurence Hughes