MUSIC / Close harmonies: Robert Maycock hears Previn play Previn at the Barbican

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Somewhere in eternity it is permanently 1968, and the London Symphony Orchestra is playing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, with Andre Previn conducting. Blink a little on Wednesday night, and you were there. True, a few details have altered, not least that they now play in what was then a bomb site. But this second round of Previn's association with the orchestra - he has now been 'conductor laureate' for a year - is a tribute to creative endurance. Creative, because the concert began with something else that a quarter- century ago was just a space waiting to be filled in somebody's mind: Previn's own Cello Sonata, given its British premiere by Yo-Yo Ma with the composer as pianist.

First performed earlier this year in Amsterdam, the sonata is a substantial piece in three traditionally formed movements, notably well laid out for the two instruments. Piano easily drowns cello, as anybody who has wrestled with the Brahms sonatas will know. Previn has kept the keyboard part light, dry and fluent, like his own playing, and the cello can sing out without having to force its tone. The style is mid-century eclectic, with spiky American rhythms, chord spacings from Shostakovich, and a racy opening that is tempted by hints of melody and finally gives in, a bit like one of Poulenc's sprawling middle sections imagined by Prokofiev.

Still, as Brahms said when his First Symphony came out with an idea echoing Beethoven's Ninth, any fool can see that. What makes this Previn's is the wry, disillusioned lyrical feeling, the unpredictable (if sometimes contrived) harmonies, the eagerness to try new slants on old ideas, above all the pleasure in two instruments playing closely together without fuss - real chamber music, written for real players. Its chief joy is the finale, a set of variations on a quirky square- cut theme that spins off a syncopated sprint of great vitality, complete with good-humoured bouts of chasing each other's tails and a brief look back at the best tune. It won't be challenging for a place in eternity, but it kept a packed house as diverted as the players.

For the rest of the programme, Previn picked up the Shostakovich line. When the orchestra assembled, Ma was back immediately for the First Cello Concerto and transformed himself from musician having fun with a friend to great soloist addressing big issues. In the long central meditation, he projected an awesome sense of the melody's inner tensions and outward beauties - never too early, never forcing an accent, yet finding all the intensity of the music and moving on to a powerfully cumulative cadenza with the audience hanging on to every note. It's easy to forget how rare genuine star quality is. Ma, in urgently persuading you that the evening's star was Shostakovich, left no doubt about himself either.

(Photograph omitted)

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