Classical: A shimmering celestial vision for cello


THE INDEFATIGABLE Rostropovich attracted a huge crowd to the Barbican on Wednesday. Another sold-out concert for the London Symphony Orchestra which, for some time, has been on a winning streak. Who says the audience for classical music is dying out? But it is the judicious mix that guarantees the crowd - a configuration of classical music, a great soloist and something unusual.

That has been the strength of LSO programming. Rostropovich has done more to change the face of cello repertoire this century than any other cellist (Casals's record in commissioning is pretty dismal and Emanuel Feuermann's virtually non-existent). Rostropovich's goal is to commission 100 concertos. In his early days, the greatest composers of the time - Shostakovich, Britten - wrote for him. Now, composers of his own age and a younger generation, scurry to write for him. But is there a hint of megalomania to this commissioning urge? How often do we hear repeat performances of more than a handful of works from this vast treasure trove that has come into being in just the past 20 years?

Clearly, the trawl of living talent is uneven, but it was something of an ear-opener to hear Wednesday's catch. Alongside two "classical" (albeit for their times "neo-classical") concertos by Saint-Saens (his A minor) and Tchaikovsky (his "Rococo" Variations), The Canticle of the Sun by Sofia Gubaidulina received its UK premiere. It's a long work - 45 minutes - and in its slow pacing it felt even longer. But the score is intriguing, not least in its successful bid to allow the soloist to be heard through the crowd.

Gubaidulina has written extensively for cello and is supremely experienced in dealing with this issue, but surely this scoring must be her most original: two percussionists playing a vast array of instruments from wine glasses to tubular bells via timpani, marimbaphone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, plate bells, antique cymbals and large tam-tam, plus celeste and a chamber choir comprising a half dozen sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. The mix is magical and extremely canny. Upward glissandi, tremolo harmonies, wide leaping intervals, characterise the solo part as an insistent semitonal movement characterises much of the vocal line.

Many of Gubaidulina's works carry an extra musical dimension, frequently a response to mystical ideas and Christian symbolism. By taking the text of the "Canticle of the Sun" by St Francis of Assisi, Gubaidulina means to reflect the sunny personality of Rostropovich. But not much sun comes over - more a largely subdued argument, thin in texture, that purports to underlie "the glorification of the Creator and His Creation by a very humble, simple Christian friar".

Towards the end, the cellist abandons his instrument for the delightful sounds of the flexatone, bowing it in a display like some latter-day Papageno. And who could forget the shimmering echoes of those musical glasses? Neil Percy and Simon Carrington were the deft percussionists with John Alley on celesta. London Voices provided excellent vocal support while the conductor, Ryusuke Numajiri, successfully held proceedings together.

Annette Morreau

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