The sorrowful song that rises from the cellos to become a long and searching meditation for the soloist of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto marks the start of a work that is about as up-close and personal as this composer gets. Place it in the hands of a conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich, who was his friend and confidant, and a soloist, Maxim Vengerov, who is like a musical son to that friend, and you've a hotline of succession to understanding.
It is now 11 years since the then-19-year-old Vengerov first astounded a Barbican Hall audience with this piece. A snapped E-string in the closing minute famously intensified the drama of that memorable occasion; there were no such extra-musical theatrics this time around. Vengerov's Kreutzer Stradivarius withstood the rigours of the work's extraordinary cadenza, in which music of extraordinary purity is systematically violated by a cruel and overwhelming anxiety. It's that age-old opposition of beauty and bestiality, of pathos and bathos, that makes for the scarifying extremes here. Vengerov repeatedly took us to the edge and back in ethereal, fragile ascents. Rarely can the simple application of a mute have had such effect. There seemed to be a thousand degrees of quiet in his playing.
Against this came the unstinting grittiness of the scherzo and finale, the sheer size of his sound bearing down on the enforced merrymaking. But this was way beyond violin playing, beyond technique. This was music-making on an altogether higher plane.
Naturally the presence of his spiritual godfather, Rostropovich, helped - and so did that of the London Symphony Orchestra. In Shostakovich's 10th Symphony they more than matched their soloist with fantastic virtuosity at the widest possible dynamics. Especially striking here was the individuality and character of the woodwind soloists - a grainy, earthy quality suggestive of hand-rearing on the Steppes.
The roadmap of this symphony is now so familiar to Rostropovich but each time he makes the journey he probes that little bit deeper into the emotion of the piece. Some may feel that he is more emphatic with this music than he needs to be, but who else could encourage this orchestra to nail the finale's climactic statement of the composer's musical monogram with such thrilling defiance? It is just four notes, but a lifetime of disobedience.Reuse content