review Mstislav Rostropovich LSO / Sir Colin Davis Barbican Concert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
The Barbican Concert Hall seemed positively imbued with a sense of "back to school" for the opening of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1996/7 season on Tuesday night. And how better to celebrate the welcoming back of old friends than to mark the occasion with a performance of a new work. But affording the necessary preparation is a perilous juggling act, as can be seen from a somewhat quirky (but ingenious) bit of programme planning evidently devised to save on precious rehearsal time: Tuesday's concert offered virtually the same programme as that to be heard on 3 October. Only the churlish, however, could complain about a chance to hear Mstislav Rostropovich give the world premiere of a new cello concerto in the company of Sibelius's En Saga and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on both occasions.

On Tuesday we heard Colin Matthews's work; on 3 October it will be James MacMillan's turn. Rostropovich has been responsible for commissioning many of this century's greatest works for cello and it is heartening that, approaching 70, his enthusiasm for encouraging new work shows no decline. His aim to premiere 100 concertos is making good progress but he doesn't make his task easier by playing one piece virtually on top of the other. And, indeed, in Colin Matthews's remarkable new work, signs of "newness" or lack of relaxation from the soloist were occasionally evident.

Matthews's concerto is his second for cello, although more than a decade separates their composition. The first concerto is a work for virtuoso soloist, while the second is altogether more intimate. Matthews has skilfully written for Rostropovich, eschewing virtuoso pyrotechnics in favour of predominantly slow music which emphasises that wonderfully burnished sound, even if some of the double-stopped chords seemed awkward.

Matthews's work is in five movements, played without a break, to form an arch, the opening "Declamation" balanced by a closing "Resolution" (or compressed recapitulation), while two "Song without text" movements support a central Scherzo. The ghosts of Mahler and Britten haunt the orchestral colouring: a halo of high violin sound surrounds the opening statement from the cello; the harp sets off the exquisitely beautiful first "Song without text"; menacing muted horns and growling trombones invade the Scherzo. Only in the rumbustious central movement is the full orchestra given its head, freed, by and large, from the restraint of accompanying. A doubling of horn with solo cello in the final movement seems mildly miscalculated, serving somehow to hobble the soloist - a faint quibble in relation to the magnificence of the piece as a whole.

If Sir Colin Davis had safely steered a sparkling LSO through Matthews's concerto and Sibelius's proto-Philip Glass En Saga, the dividends of a "safe pair of hands" were to be reaped again in a marvellously musical Beethoven Seventh, where any quirkiness was Beethoven's alone.

Davis's building of tension through diligently observing the match of dynamic to harmonic rhythm was absolutely riveting. But the biggest shock remained the key change between the third and fourth movements (played without pause) - positively electrifying!