Arts: Classical: Music wins the war

ST PETERSBURG PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA/ YURI TEMIRKANOV BARBICAN HALL LONDON

YET ANOTHER gruesome irony has joined the long catalogue that grew up around Dmitri Shostakovich. He wrote his Seventh Symphony in, and about, a besieged Leningrad, holding out against the German onslaught of 1941. Now, in the aftermath of the siege of Belgrade, on the night that Russian and British forces jostled to be first into Kosovo, here was the St Petersburg Philharmonic in the most warmongering of the Nato capitals, to play that same symphony. You could almost hear a distant hollow laugh.

A packed audience gave it an ovation, either determined that music should have the last word, or unaware of the momentous link. If anybody on stage felt the rush of contradictory emotions, they were not giving much away. Yuri Temirkanov appeared to glare back witheringly and passed his bouquet to the principal flautist; but he looks like that most of the time, and he went on to conduct Elgar's "Nimrod" as a whopping English icon of an encore.

Strong mixed emotion is this symphony's essence. By the time Shostakovich wrote the final minutes there had been a Russian victory near Moscow, but Leningrad was still tied down. The music surges towards one of his double-takes on triumphalism; jubilant brass narrowly prevails over wailing harmonies and jackbooted rhythms. Sometimes this sort of ending is a coded message about the falsity of official Soviet optimism, but in the "Leningrad" Symphony it sounds urgent and hard-won.

The St Petersburgers' performance saved its full splendour for this finale, the most cogent and powerful part of the work though not necessarily the loudest or most memorable. Near the start, the invaders march in to a repetitive, deliberately maddening crescendo. It can be an episode of high drama; here, it was mechanically near-perfect but short of firepower, carried by the weight of string tone (34 violins!) rather than its intensity.

The high point of these earlier stages was the unearthly stillness after the battle, a solo bassoon singing out in vast spans of melody.

Before the symphony, the orchestra played Nikolai Roslavets' Hours of the New Moon, an elaborately scored and luxuriant piece from 1912 by one of the Moscow radicals of the day. Superficially dependent on sounds from Debussy's La Mer and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, it veered alarmingly between ravishing, luminous colours and a muddy opacity. Unlike its models it lacked definition in its material and overall form, and the end, a half-hearted cut-off, fell between several stools. Even these virtuoso players couldn't give it much shape or clarity - not a patch on what Roslavets' Finnish contemporaries were up to, just over the border.

As for "Nimrod", the performance was a revelation. Fluent and ardent, it emerged with ease and virtually in a single phrase from the massed strings. For the first time in my experience the music had not a trace of either the stiff upper lip or the clenched jaw. Until recently English musicians were supposed to hold a special key to its expressive world, but playing like this suggests they have barely turned the lock.

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