Classical: The sound of fury

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The Independent Culture
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH had many reasons to celebrate the passing of Joseph Stalin in March of 1953. Two of them - the Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor and the 10th Symphony - rubbed shoulders this week as part of the London Symphony Orchestra's continuing retrospective of the composer's life and work according to Mstislav Rostropovich. There was curiosity, too, in the shape of two very strange clips from one of Shostakovich's forgotten film scores, a little something called Michurin about a horticulturalist and plant-breeder whom propaganda deems a national hero. This is tabloid music in which green themes are dutifully augmented by what would appear to be the entire Red Army brass ensemble. And yet even here you happen unexpectedly upon an introspective viola solo - Shostakovich's other self. The quiet revolutionary.

He's there, unseen and initially unheard amongst the lachrymose cellos and basses at the start of the First Violin Concerto. Consigned to the dark but moving towards the light in music on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Now calm, now febrile, now angry, now defiant - Maxim Vengerov was Shostakovich. He played this concerto, just as he has done so memorably before, with all the life-dependency demanded of it. Supreme technique at the service of the deepest truths. Here were sounds not bowed but rather somehow radiated; half-heard, half-remembered tissues of melody drifting in and out of consciousness. There were notes you scarcely believed, single notes left hanging, vibrating, by what means you could not imagine. The purity of their intonation was so intense that it almost hurt to listen. Unreal. But never for long. Grim reality made for savage contrasts throughout the persecuted narrative. Jewish folk tunes whose smile had long since twisted into a grimace were ground under the heel of Vengerov's bow. Steely digits skidded up the fingerboard to become shrieks of alarm. Even the phoenix-like aria which rose from the great slow movement passacaglia was mindful of imminent collapse. This was playing so great you simply didn't know where to put yourself. Other than on your feet.

So Stalin was upstaged, just as Shostakovich must always have believed he would be. In the 10th Symphony, he wreaks his havoc and passes on like an ill whirlwind (hurricane Stalin - now there's a thought). Rostropovich conducts the scherzo like Stalin's face is the target and Shostakovich's music the missile. Sabre-rattling side drum and roaring brass do damage to the fabric, but the edifice still stands tall. Rostropovich's reading is very tall and very broad, an epic among epics. Founded on a mighty saturation of LSO string sound (the fall-out from the rosin cloud coming off the first movement's tremolandos knocks you sideways), the desolation lingers after the fury has subsided. Those bereft woodwind duets, where clarinets, flutes, bassoons, and transfixed piccolos take what little comfort they can from each other, were seamlessly attended by the LSO principals and their number twos. But ultimately there is a happy ending, a few moments of liberation, as Shostakovich's musical monogram (the notes D, E-flat, C and B, which in German transliteration spell out DSCH) publicly asserts itself. The quiet revolutionary is outed without a word being spoken.

Edward Seckerson