Of tsars and tyrants

SHOSTAKOVICH / ROSTROPOVICH BARBICAN, LONDON

THE DEDICATION was not yet dry on the title page when, in 1959, Mstislav Rostropovich first played Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 1. That's a lot of history to carry forward to the present day. But history made all the difference to the performance that Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra gave in Barbican Hall on Saturday night. The fingers were not always as nimble as they once were, not always precisely where the player expected them to be - time spent away from the instrument grows costlier by the year. A certain doggedness now pervaded the outer movements. A gruffness lent impatience to the voice.

But it was an older and wiser and wilier voice that dredged out the folk- songs like they were no longer well-kept secrets; it was the voice of one who had lived, and lived hard. History. The subtext of it was inescapable, and it carried Rostropovich over a handful of technical crises that would have sunk a lesser musician. The slow movement of the piece now looked deeper into its troubled past. The passage where exalted harmonics from the soloist bring only the chilliest of responses from a monosyllabic celeste was possessed now of a painful vulnerablity. Searching questions, but still no answers. Better to cast care aside and sing a cynical song. Rostropovich relished the finale's strident caricature of a folk-tune it now transpires was one of Stalin's favourites.

More history, more folk-tunes ("like white birds flying against a terrible black sky", as the poet Anna Akhmatova once put it) are the backbone of Symphony No 11, 1905 - the year of the first Bolshevik uprising. Shostakovich did not live through it (he was born a year later), but he heard tell of it, and the tales he heard told were heroic. His symphony reads like a pageant, all mood and rhetoric. But the weight of history is overwhelming. The simplest gestures carry the optimum charge. So little on the page, so much conveyed. The frozen air of the "Palace Square" - the first movement - hangs heavily over 15 or so static minutes in which the subtlest displacements in the string harmonies convey a terrible foreboding. The flashpoint of the revolution, the moment in which the Tsar's troops fire into the crowd of unarmed protesters, is a full-frontal assault of the entire percussion battery, the unearthly silence in its wake (stunningly achieved in white, open string chords) worth a thousand words. And how could words alone ever convey the heartache of a single cor anglais reiterating the revolutionary song "Bare Your Heads!". At this point in Rostropovich's brave performance (he had downed his cello and upped his baton), it was as if Shostakovich himself were speaking to us with the benefit of hindsight. As bass clarinet vociferously led the uprising into the dramatic coda of the piece, as bells clanged out their alarum in defiant minor- key dissonance, the inference was horribly clear - from where he stood in 1957, one form of tyranny had already been supplanted by another.

Edward Seckerson

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