LSO / Rostropovich Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
Saturday's Rostropovich Seventieth Birthday celebration was rich in musical allusions - Leonard Bernstein to Prokofiev, Prokofiev to his great classical forebears and Shostakovich to his own notated signature. The concert opened with Bernstein's uproarious Rostropovich tribute, the Overture for Orchestra: Slava!, Slava - or "glory" - being Rostropovich's nickname. Slava! borrows from a little-known Bernstein musical and runs the gamut of Lenny-style gestures, from Candide and "Officer Krupke" to Fancy Free. However, the real surprise arrives during a "development" section where ranting taped voices lobby for attention over an upbeat rhythmic accompaniment, alluding unmistakably to a parallel passage in Prokofiev's rowdy October Revolution Cantata. The score climaxes to hearty shouts of "Slava!" that sounded like an orderly stage riot. The LSO's performance bristled with life, whereas Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, although nicely pointed, was more weighty than witty. Here the "classical" axis was presented "a la Karajan" rather than "a la Harnoncourt", with broadly drawn cellos answering perky violins and bassoons in the first movement, a dreamy Larghetto, a lovingly over-stated Gavotte and a spruce finale. Rostropovich attended to every detail of the score, punching out accents, raising a crescendo with his left hand, then lowering his arm gradually for a scrupulously tailored diminuendo. This was no mere pastiche, but a real First Symphony, albeit one that's tinged with irony.

However, the highlight of the evening was yet to come and I doubt that anyone present had ever heard a finer concert performance of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, at least not in the past 20 years. The opening bars said it all, with cellos and basses stalking the night, joined almost imperceptibly by first violins and violas. It was very much an "edge of the seat" job, tensed in body and breath, stealthy, ominous and beautifully shaped. And when those long, searing climaxes arrived three-quarters through the first movement, few conductors could have summoned a more forceful welter of sound. The "Stalin" Scherzo prompted rocketing dynamics and a volley of percussion loud enough to rouse the dead. The effect was truly terrifying, while the Allegretto's waltz-time variation on Shostakovich's notated signature (based on an abbreviation of the Germanised "D SCHostakowitsch") sounded, in Rostropovich's hands, like a macabre Russian dance.

But perhaps the most memorable moment of all came near the beginning of the finale, where woodwinds attempt to break the mood, only to be rebuffed by glowering responses. Shostakovich eventually lets the woodwinds win, though the denouement comes later on when "Stalin" returns and the composer tops him with an explosive statement of the "DSCH" motive. Rostropovich rose to the moment as if defending a loved one in battle; it was sweet vengeance, a tribute within a tribute, and a glorious affirmation of musical freedom. Suddenly, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to play this loaded score under an oppressive regime - knowing that, although one tyrant was gone, the job was still only half done. Such is the suggestive power of great music, and the persuasive force of a great performance.