CLASSICAL: LSO/Wigglesworth Barbican Hall, London

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"In those years only the dead smiled/ Glad to be at rest:/ And Leningrad city swayed like/ A needless appendix to its prisons." The words are those of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and there were many of "those years". Akhmatova herself spent 17 months waiting for news of her "missing" son. Stalin took him to punish her dissent. But her words knew nothing of conformity and cared less for blackmail. Requiem was her testament to the "years of terror". Dmitri Shostakovich read it and honoured it. And where the words ended, the music began.

Fiona Shaw spoke the words at the start of Thursday's LSO concert, and she spoke them in semi-darkness, her tone sometimes agitated, sometimes strident, never melodramatic. The truth isn't. There are those who would accuse Shostakovich of playing at melodrama in his Seventh Symphony. But feel the subtext: the resentment, the outrage, runs deep.

This symphony, the "Leningrad", effectively begins before the great siege it was said to commemorate: Stalin and Hitler - they're interchangeable. The opening pages "read" like a propaganda poster: happy Soviets bounding towards a future of hard work, industrial growth and military might. The LSO strings, resolute here under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth (his debut with the orchestra), played up the propaganda - heavy bows, big tone, stalwart, unflinching. So, right from the start, Wigglesworth stood toe- to-toe, eye-to-eye with the score. The big picture was fine. He kept us well in the frame, mindful of atmosphere, hungry for confrontation. In many respects it was a sensational performance.

The seemingly innocuous little tune that slowly but surely infects the first movement was presented here without so much as a half-smile. Flat, expressionless, staring you out. Stalin would surely have found it charming, a real toe-tapper. And therein lies the irony. But Wigglesworth didn't signpost it - he played it absolutely straight, and the horrific mutation was all the more pitiless for it. Maybe, just maybe, the advancing "war machine" reached saturation point a little too soon. The LSO brass are a mighty force, especially when augmented antiphonally as here. They need careful handling. The question arose: who was in control here?

That's a little unfair. The uncompromising nature of Wigglesworth's reading was clearly of his own making. OK, so the dynamics ranged from very soft to very loud with not a whole lot of variation between. Yet the direct, unhoned quality of the sound world (very Mahlerian) was apt: the bass clarinet leading the second movement's dance of death, the plangent alliance of harps and woodwind cleaving the opening of the third like a rough Orthodox plainchant.

So, premature climaxes apart, why the air of qualification in this review? Well, there is still a sense (on this showing anyway) in which the tone of Wigglesworth's reading - for all his self-evident involvement (why, he even writes his own programme notes) - feels impersonal, once-removed. But then he's a very young man with a lot of living to do. Ultimately, of course, Shostakovich's notes (like Akhmatova's words) will out. And in the long uphill climb of the symphony's coda - music rising from near- extinction to stand very tall indeed - there was an overwhelming feeling that the will of a people really had triumphed over the propaganda.

Edward Seckerson

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