Shostakovich: His Heroes And Comrades, Royal Northern College Of Music, Manchester <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Such a comprehensive series of Shostakovich's music as that which Manchester is experiencing this dreary January ought to carry a health warning for concertgoers left to stumble from one kind of unrelieved darkness out into another. That is the feeling when the performances are as remarkable as in this intense first few days of an enterprising six-week survey marking the centenary of the Soviet composer's birth.

In its performances of the last three of Shostakovich's 15 quartets, the St Petersburg String Quartet were impressive. As individuals, haunting in stark, solitary vocal-like solos and recitatives, and as an ensemble, pushing tempos and dynamics, the St Petersburgers demonstrated chamber-music-making at its most perceptive and rewarding.

In their gentle unfolding and introspective shading of the sequence of the six slow movements of No 15, written only months before the composer's death, they were as responsive to detailed innuendo as to the enigmatic melodic lines.

Launching the collaboration between the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic in presenting the 15 symphonies, the BBC players and Vassily Sinaisky revisited Shostakovich's Fourth, with which they made such an impression at the Proms in 2000.

There was no question of muting its barrage of dynamic assault, diluting its dazzling colour or softening the inevitability of its desperate ending. Sparks flew in the lacerating fugue, the strings fervent and secure, while the effect of demons at torturous play was projected by bleating woodwind, brutal brass and thunderous percussion. The devastating ending has seldom sounded bleaker.

Earlier, Tasmin Little gave an engaging and superbly controlled account of the Violin Concerto by Shostakovich's champion and admirer Benjamin Britten. Confident even at the extremes of the violin's range, and eloquent in the work's elegiac ending, she matched faultless technique with sheer beauty of sound.

'Shostakovich and his Heroes' continues at the Bridgewater Hall (0161-907 9000; www.shostakovichmanchester.co.uk) until 24 February

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