Magical display

CLASSICAL Mstislav Rostropovich LSO / Zubin Mehta Barbican Centre, London
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The Independent Culture
The composers at Thursday's Barbican concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra were Dvorak, Wagner and Shostakovich, but the guiding lights were Mstislav Rostropovich and Zubin Mehta. Having conducted two of his own 70th birthday concerts with the orchestra earlier in the same week, Rostropovich ceded the rostrum to maestro Mehta and returned to his cello. The longest serving Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and Music Director for life of the Israel Philharmonic, Mehta, born in Bombay, is an always welcome visitor to British concert halls. His style is both fiery and Olympian. Unlike maestro Rostropovich, he reserves his emotions solely for the music.

This was clear the moment he stood before the band, having delivered the customary bow to the audience with a rather icy stare. Then they were off together in a smooth, refined account of Wagner's Rienzi Overture. Here, Mehta showed notable control in the slowly unfolding prayer theme, his baton tracing intricate patterns as if moved by an unseen force through some substance more viscous than air. With something of the conjuror's manner in his sturdy appearance, he continued the magical display in the principal section and in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, directing from memory with outbursts of almost violent feeling between himself and the forces of the orchestra.

Rostropovich's fine emotions are famous for their presence both on and off the platform. Even so, the music, for him, cast a spell that began with the very first note and bore him onwards as if playing the work newly minted. Being far from the case, this was either professionalism or pure inspiration, but surely the latter, for in his lithe and alert delivery, each phrase of the piece was a genuine step traversing the whole. In the cadenza there was even a fluff in a tortuous passage high on the fingerboard, a tricky bit of double stopping in thumb position that must be a nightmare for even the greatest of cellists.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto, also on the programme, made a tempting taster for Sunday's concert with the same forces and including Strauss's Don Quixote, a cracking account of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Ernest Bloch's Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra, Schelomo. Too rarely heard these days, this musical picture of King Solomon in all his glory drew intense and exultant playing from Rostropovich to match the deeply felt emotions of this neglected score.

In contrast, Strauss's tragicomic persiflage based loosely on Cervantes's novel was a very different piece of musical drama, but one that appealed to all Slava's theatrical instincts and powers of empathy. The LSO shined in a work that promotes display in almost every orchestral department; Strauss's essays in verisimilitude, for example, the bleating sheep of Variation Two, and in Variation Seven the ride through the air, were flawlessly done. Still, these knightly variations are the cello's vehicle, and in the Don's vigil for Dulcinea, and his deathbed scene, Rostropovich filled the role with noble pathos. As Sancho Panza, the first viola, played smart- witted stooge to his master's imperfections, Mehta showed firm command both of detail and broad structure. Nicholas Williams