Classical: Shostakovich, according to the rhythms of his old friend

Shostakovich cycle

LSO, Barbican, EC2

Elgar 3rd Symphony

SWEB Festival of Elgar, Bristol

Daughter of the Regiment

English Touring Opera, RIchmond

LSO, Barbican, EC2

The chemistry between conductors and their orchestras declares itself by result rather than action, and there are times when the action doesn't amount to much at all. Witness the long-term love-affair between the London Symphony and Rostropovich. From the visual evidence of Rostropovich flailing around on the rostrum, all elbows, air-hugs and decisive downbeats on a scarcity alert, you might expect the worst. But in fact, it almost always ends up with astounding music. Especially when the music is Russian and the Russian is Shostakovich, whose 15 symphonies have been the chief preoccupation of the LSO this year. The first half of a complete cycle ran through February and March at the Barbican. The second half has just begun. And I doubt if you'd find a more authentic rendition of these mostly dark, bitter and painful scores anywhere in the world at the moment. Even in Russia itself, where tradition runs deep, but is compromised by questionable standards and a wavering grasp of the distinction between sentience and sentiment.

With Rostropovich and the LSO you get a sort of flaying of the soul, a fierce pursuit of the truth that throws up lots of violent aural gore. And whatever the truth of the Shostakovich symphonies may be, you can be sure that these performances are digging deep for it. Which is more than can be said for the notes in the impressive-looking programme-book compiled for the cycle. As I mentioned on this page back in the Spring, the notes are one-dimensional: written as though Testimony (the posthumous memoir of Shostakovich which provoked a radical rereading of his work) had never been published. Testimony has, of course, been proved unreliable on matters of detail, but its broad picture - of a composer in fear of his life and liberty, hiding the personal meaning of his music behind a veneer of public statement - is generally considered accurate.

Tuesday's instalment of the cycle found Shostakovich very much in hiding - after the 1948 Zhdanov decree which attacked his work as "formalist" and "undemocratic", with "contempt for melody" and "neuropathic discords alien to the artistic taste of the Soviet people". After Zhdanov, Shostakovich had no place on Soviet concert platforms. He was reduced to writing for the cinema - blameless music, like the score for Michurin, which opened Tuesday's concert. All his other work was put on hold, including plans for a new symphony and violin concerto. Concertos were too obviously undemocratic to bear contemplation.

But in 1953, Stalin died; and with the immediate prospect of a softer political environment, the Violin Concerto No 1 and Symphony No 10 emerged in quick succession. They are twins stylistically, and share material, including the motto theme, D-Eflat-C-B (D-S-C-H in German nomenclature), which became Shostakovich's musical signature. And the endlessly repeated insistence of that theme delivers a clear message. I'm still here, says Shostakovich. Through the terror, I survived.

Perhaps it takes a Russian to appreciate quite what that means; and Rostropovich (in his early twenties at the time of Zhdanov) hammers out the notes like fist-blows on a prison door. It's an aural battery that's both magnificent and desperate. I've never heard a more exhilarating live performance of the 10th. Nor have I heard the Violin Concerto played with such hard-bitten force as here, by Maxim Vengerov. This is a tough piece - too tough for David Oistrakh, its original interpreter, who had the score modified to allow himself a rest between the cadenza and finale. Vengerov takes no rest, and he doesn't seem to need it. Tuesday's reading was all power-driven energy; a tour de force of staggering dimension.

s aside, few musical events this year have caught the public imagination so vividly as the emergence of Elgar's 3rd Symphony, realised from the composer's sketches by Anthony Payne. Since it premiered in February it has been played 10 times. There are 60 performances scheduled during the next year. And it has been the inspiration for a whole Elgar Festival, running over several weekends in Bristol as a joint collaboration between the university and the seriously up-and-coming Bristol-based Brunel Ensemble under its conductor, Christopher Austin. Last weekend was the pivotal event, with an Elgar study day and a performance of the 3rd Symphony itself. And the more I hear this piece, the more I find it the most striking repository of Elgar's late ideas about orchestral writing. The rawness of the opening bars, with their brazen, rising parallel fourths, is still slightly shocking. But it stays in the mind. And about that passage at least, there's no question of authenticity. Every note is Elgar's own.

Much of the rest, though, was left open-ended - especially the finale where Payne had to compose from scratch, fixing the course not only of that movement but of the entire piece. Technically, stylistically and temperamentally, his solutions are, I think, convincing. And though you might quibble with the soft gong-stroke at the very end - a touch Cecil B de Mille for Elgar - it works within the context that Payne creates, as an atmospheric winding-down on ghostly resonances of the opening theme.

In Bristol, the Brunel Ensemble did it proud, with a performance that wasn't tidy - the string entries could have done with some housekeeping - but was alive, driven on by technically assured conducting that made sense even if it sometimes pushed the pace. And it was good that the symphony came paired with a piece that showed what Anthony Payne sounds like when he's being himself: Time's Arrow, his 1990 Proms commission, which has never had a live public performance since its premiere at the Albert Hall. I can't think why. It's an explosively attractive score that asks a lot of its performers. But it rewards them too, in music that you might call "questioningly English". And again, it was a fine performance, rushed during the central section, but otherwise held together with nerves of steel and a technique to match by Christopher Austin. A class act that many a London orchestra would covet.

The joke in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment is about class - a rough girl from beneath the salt who suddenly finds herself above it - and English Touring Opera retells the joke very nicely in its new production, which opened at the Richmond Theatre on Wednesday. Sarah Rhodes, who played the girl in question, is a joy: robustly bottom-drawer, but with a voice that knows how to behave impeccably. Kit Hesketh-Harvey's singing translation is a hoot: none the worse, in this Offenbach-like opera comique, for its West End raciness. And though I'd expected a tighter feel for movement from the direction of Ian Spink (the Second Stride choreographer, branching out) it's an entirely upbeat show that makes one of the best ETO offerings in recent years. And there's another joke in this production, about Swiss identity and alpine scenes (the action happens in the Tyrol) which is so adroitly handled that the real star of the show is the designer, Yannis Thavoris, who delivers every opera company's dream of something stylish, sharp and clever on a tiny budget. Note the name. This is a major talent in the making.

Shostakovich: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Tues. Bristol SWEB Festival of Elgar (0117 924 8255), Sat. 'Daughter of the Regiment': Wycombe Swan (01494 512000), Tues, Thurs & Sat.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits