CLASSICAL MUSIC

Schumann Cello Concerto: Sinfonia 21 St John's Smith Square; LSO Barbican
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The Independent Culture
`Mr Feuermann elected to play a concerto which is weak in invention and which, for the average cellist, seldom repays the labour of preparation." So wrote Olin Downes, the musical "Clive Barnes" of The New York Times, in 1935 after a performance of Schumann's Cello Concerto by the great Austrian virtuoso with Otto Klemperer and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. How times have changed. For a work that has been so unpopular, two performances of the Cello Concerto within the space of a week says something encouraging about musical taste. Just who Downes had in mind for "the average cellist" is unknown but in the most musical hands of Ralph Kirshbaum last Thursday, this late work bloomed, Kirshbaum bringing a warmth of tone and soulful eloquence to the long opening theme, a theme that permeates the concerto.

Unusually, Kirshbaum inserted Emanuel Feuermann's idiomatic cadenza which serves to balance Schumann's compressed, one-movement structure well. Towards the end of the concerto, treacherous leaps await the most accomplished of cellists - Feuermann laughed when he missed the note - but Kirshbaum was never fazed. Sensitively accompanied by Sinfonia 21 under Martyn Brabbins in the boomy acoustic of St John's Smith Square, this was a chamber reading. And in the spirit of music in a chamber, both Brabbins and Kirshbaum addressed the audience, Kirshbaum brilliantly talking up Hindemith's gravely solo sonata, intelligently included in the programme, so that it made an altogether unlikely hit. Equally unlikely was the warm response to a barely known symphony, Kurt Weill's second, to which Brabbins brought bubbly bitterness in a work that seems to be a distillation of the music-theatre pieces without the words.

At the Barbican on Tuesday, the second outing of the Schumann concerto occurred in a performance very different from the previous week. For a start, we had to endure the Shostakovich edition - harp, piccolo, horns, trumpets and timpani added to improve the orchestration. Shostakovich's tinkering, particularly with the harp accompanying the concerto's main lyrical slow section, sounds sickly and sentimental while the piccolo and trumpet add a glitter totally out of place. Like Mussorgsky, Schumann knew what he was doing. Rostropovich's performance was curate's egg-like - stunningly confident in approaching those difficult high leaps (where Kirshbaum occasionally shied off), lyrically eloquent with his marvellous burnished tone, but with moments scrambled and crushed that left an unsettled effect. This was Rostropovich's final concert in his 70th-birthday series with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, a particularly fitting choice on this occasion for the final work in the programme, Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto. This is probably the hardest piece in the cello literature and to an extent Rostropovich has but himself to blame since it was he who encouraged Prokofiev, at the end of his life, to rewrite the early 1933 concerto. But, time and again, Rostropovich showed that this was "his" concerto, negotiating the difficulties with the authority of one who had brought them into being. Britten's Four Sea Interludes allowed the LSO to rip; I would certainly not have wanted to be out in Ozawa's shattering "Storm".

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