PROMS / Trick or treat: Stephen Johnson on the Shostakovich rediscovery, Hypothetically Murdered, performed by the BBC SO at the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
IN ONE sense at least Thursday's Prom was an inspired piece of popular programme-planning: the riskiest item turned out to be the resounding hit of the evening. In a programme that also included Strauss, Dvorak and Grieg's Piano Concerto, it was Gerard McBurney's imaginative, painstaking reconstruction of Shostakovich's 'light-music circus entertainment' score, Hypothetically Murdered, that had the promenaders cheering and stamping for more. They didn't get their encore; with Till Eulenspiegel still to come, perhaps the brass were not too disappointed.

The history of Hypothetically Murdered is delightful enough in itself, but much too involved for a review of this length. In brief, while holidaying around the Black Sea in 1930, Shostakovich met Leonid Utyosov, a kind of Russian fusion of Count Basie and P T Barnum. Shostakovich didn't care much for Utyosov's very un- American brand of 'jazz', but his musicians thrilled him. The result was an amazing three-act entertainment including water nymphs, Russian saints, girls in Red Army uniforms and Alma the dancing dog - Utyosov himself sweeping in at the climax on a trapeze.

In more politically dangerous times, Shostakovich turned his back on Hypothetically Murdered ('plain bad and disgraceful'), and the score and parts disappeared, along with most of the details of the production. But, working from press reports, photographs, personal recollections and most importantly the composer's piano sketches, Gerard McBurney has given us an 11-movement Hypothetically Murdered Suite that sounds like Shostakovich - but not quite like any other Shostakovich.

In fact its arrival on the scene could be timely - a reminder that the foremost musical tragedian of the post-war years was also capable of throwing caution and those thick protective glasses into the wings and putting on a five-star musical debauch. Perhaps there are musical code-breakers working even now to show how the whole thing is really a disguised warning about the rise of Stalin - a matter for tears, not laughter.

For me though, and apparently for most of the capacity audience, it was just riotous, uplifting fun. Mark Elder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed to enjoy it too - special honours to James Rattigan, accordion, James Holland, percussion, Paul Harvey, tenor saxophone, and for John Alley's stylish madness at the upright piano.

After this the more cultivated humour of Till Eulenspiegel took a while to establish itself. Eventually it grew into a stylish, involving performance, though a drop or two of the Shostakovich spirit might have sharpened the taste here and there. Dvorak's Othello Overture was similarly well-shaped and purposeful, though the 'somewhat programmatic' element didn't always sit comfortably with the sonata scheme.

Lars Vogt's solo performance in the Grieg Concerto also left doubts. It was all very strong and direct - a bit too much so? The tender, dreamy Grieg didn't get much of a look-in, not even in the Adagio, though the orchestral introduction had warmth. No, the Shostakovich won by a clear knock-out. The message to compilers of other popular programmes is: 'Live dangerously]'

(Photograph omitted)