LSO / Gergiev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Valery Gergiev - soon to be the orchestra's chief conductor - breathed with this music, sometimes audibly, sometimes merely through the fluttering vibrato of his fingers. In the epic, war-torn Eighth Symphony - the dark heart of the Shostakovich canon - Gergiev created a sense of space and atmosphere and colour that dug deep into the subtext of the piece. Bass-lines were unfathomable; high-lying, piccolo-flecked violins were so taut as to be ready to snap in an instant.

This is music of unremitting intensity, music that almost never relaxes. It is the music of fear and sorrow, fear tangible here in the seismic eruptions of solo percussion, in the shudder of a triple-forte string tremolando evaporating in an instant to a barely audible shiver. At such moments it was possible not to believe one's own ears. And then there was the sorrow. Christine Pendrill's long, eloquent cor anglais solo seemed to shoulder it all in the closing pages of the first movement. Her quiet playing - indeed, that of all the woodwind principals - was astonishingly fine.

A sensational account of the Eighth Symphony, then, and if the temptation so early in the cycle was to say, "Follow that", Gergiev and the LSO did so the very next night with a no less riveting account of the other great war symphony, the Seventh, "Leningrad".

Decades of bad press have not blunted the impact of this amazing work. The dynamic and emotional range of this performance was colossal. But what really left a lasting impression were the shadowy recesses of the inner movements, music quite unlike anything else in Shostakovich. The trio of the scherzo - a mad Mahlerian waltz withering to disgruntled bass clarinet; the fractured wind chorale of the slow movement eventually torn from the strings to become something all too human, all too fallible.

It's a long road home to the final blaze of C major in this symphony, but Gergiev and the LSO really earned it for all of us. Stunning.