Classical: Confessions of a soul close to suicide

SHOSTAKOVICH QUARTETS BARBICAN LONDON

THE LONDON Symphony Orchestra's mighty Shostakovich Festival continues to roll. The wide open space of the Barbican platform is no natural setting for a string quartet but then Tuesday's line-up was no natural string quartet. Three of the world's top soloists - Maxim Vengerov, violin, Yuri Bashmet, viola, and Rostropovich, cello - with Alexander Barantschik, leader of one of the world's top orchestras, our very own London Symphony Orchestra, joined forces to perform string quartets by Shostakovich.

Soloists rarely make good public chamber music players. The temperament required to lead rather than to blend is a different one. Horsing around privately in "house concerts" is a different matter; what price might one have paid to witness Milstein playing cello to Emanuel Feuermann's violin? No doubt the majority of this vast audience came for the names but left deeply moved by the music.

Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets. As with all composers who write in both mediums, the chamber music reveals the more private, the more intimate. And perhaps with Shostakovich this is more true than for any other composer. As the scholar Manashir Abraham Iakubov writes in his programme note: "If Shostakovich's symphonies are a musical chronicle of his time, his quartets are the confessional diaries of a great soul."

Three quartets - the Second, Seventh and Eighth - were performed. From the outset it was clear that Vengerov was in the driving seat. In the past few days, we have heard him as the searing soloist in Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto. In his chamber music playing there's little difference; the energy, expressiveness, colour and intensity are overwhelming. In this line-up, only Yuri Bashmet could really give Vengerov a run for his money. And with little eye contact between the players, Rostropovich, in particular, looked strained as he attempted to keep up with these two young stallions.

Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, written in 1960, is arguably his most profound work. It is dedicated "to the memory of the victims of fascism and war" but in a letter to a friend, Shostakovich wrote: "I've been thinking that when I die, it's hardly likely that anyone will ever write a work dedicated to my memory. So I have decided to write one myself." It is said that Shostakovich was close to suicide. The work is a cry of pain. It is all too rare that the sanctity of the moment following the end of a work is not interrupted by the clap of some jackass. Thankfully that moment occurred. A spiritual union of five Russians.

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