MUSIC / A matter of life and death: Meredith Oakes on the opening concert in the LSO's month-long 'Festival of Britten' at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
A month's intensive Britten has started in and around the Barbican: concerts, operas, talks, films, displays. Mstislav Rostropovich, with the London Symphony Orchestra, is paying homage in this, his 'Festival of Britten', to the third great composer who was his friend. Shostakovich had all his symphonies performed in 1988; Prokofiev was royally feted in 1991; Britten is being presented somewhat through Russian eyes, with the cello pieces and the War Requiem prominent, and his Russian opposite number Shostakovich sharing a number of programmes.

The first big Barbican concert last Thursday night was prefaced by Britten's Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate, but itself contained only a small, formal glimpse of the composer: a symphonic Mahler arrangement. Rostropovich, conducting, had characteristically chosen to pile in straight away with a new LSO commission: Memorial by Colin Matthews. And then there was the Fourteenth Symphony of Shostakovich. That's the one for soprano and bass, on poems principally by Apollinaire and Rilke: a chain of Munch-like images, where warlike male and female daemons preside over the pathetic / heroic process of mind crumbling into earth.

Shostakovich, with a devastatingly beautiful economy of means, sets the texts like Mozart. Again and again the small string-dominated orchestra finds simple phrases, simple shifts of mood, that don't just illustrate the words but live alongside them, exposing their hidden drift with profound naturalness. Rarely does such a mature imagination, so sharp and fresh, encounter performers of comparable stature.

On Thursday it all came together. The reduced LSO played for Rostropovich with matchless plaintive intensity, ensemble and finesse (he kissed most of them at the end of the performance, rushing around like an ecstatic St Bernard). The Bolshoi bass Mikhail Krutikov was a miracle of clear, well-knit sound, and effortlessly shouldered the emotional weight of the suffering personae he presented. It was the same with the Kirov soprano Elena Prokina. Their acting was so magnificent, selfless and compelling that you almost forgot what healthy, finely-honed, open singing you were hearing, and what technical hurdles were being heedlessly cleared. Unforgettable.

Rostropovich is an artist who never stands off. What he performs is about him, the composer and us: now. When he champions a new piece, the commitment is total. So Colin Matthews got a great launch for his Memorial (not specific to Britten, but a large-scale, generalised juggernaut-piece). It proved to be notably lucid and authoritative. The rich planes at the beginning - sustained dark-coloured chords, violas to the fore - buzzed edge to edge like rival magnetic fields. The textures were thick but well exposed, never muddy. If later in the piece there was a descent into genre-cataclysm, with repeated notes ticking predictably over stabbing brassy attacks from the depths, this was none the less resonant, dramatic writing.

The LSO's Festival of Britten continues at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (071-638 8891) until 21 March, ending with a performance of the War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (071-589 8212) on 21 March