Review: Please don't mention the war

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Classical: LSO/Rostropovich Shostakovich Cycle

Barbican Hall, London

It was brave of the LSO's music animateur, Richard McNicol, to stand in front of the orchestra at the Barbican last Thursday and deliver a lecture on Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony to a packed house. It was even more courageous of him to do so purely by reference to musical themes and keys, with scarcely a mention of the war. After all, the sirens, marches and assorted battle effects of the piece are an open invitation to the kind of easy talk about music that makes it no more than a sonic background to some epic newsreel of the imagination.

But McNicol sidestepped all that, and was happy to show how simple patterns of tune and texture are the foundations of the massive, hour-long structure. The golden moments in this kind of music education occur when the things that were formerly heard but taken for granted by the ear become ideas in the conscious, reflecting mind. Time and again, in Rostropovich's performance that followed the interval, McNicol's well-chosen excerpts ("signposts", he called them) were recalled and fitted into place as stages on the journey.

The sense achieved, and a daunting one, was of classical music's power to be felt at many different levels - in effect, the difference between the dumbing-down of music to facile explanations, and making its mind- expanding qualities accessible through genuine music appreciation. Top marks to the LSO for this, for daring to use the words "tonic" and "dominant" in public, and for the scholarly yet readable programme book, packed with original material.

This performance of the "Leningrad" Symphony closed the first instalment of the LSO's Shostakovich cycle, which continues in October with Rostropovich conducting the eight remaining symphonies. By way of a coda on Sunday night, he joined forces with the violinist Maxim Vengerov, the violist Yuri Bashmet, and pianists Ian Brown and Mikhail Muntian for a star-studded concert that featured three of the composer's finest chamber scores.

To the Viola Sonata of 1975, his last completed work, Bashmet brought no compromises. Bare and withdrawn, it carried the mark of authenticity; Muntian was the pianist at the Sonata's premiere. Like the Second Piano Trio, heard after the interval, it's music of almost theatrical intensity. The second movement even draws on an unfinished Forties opera, The Gamblers. Quotes from the "Moonlight" Sonata and from a favourite pupil, Galina Ustvolskaya, suggest unspoken scenarios whose sadness we can only guess at. With tact and wise musicianship, the pianist Ian Brown chose the middle way in the Trio between Vengerov and Rostropovich, two egos divided by a common purpose. This was a high-voltage performance, none the less.

There was energy, too, in Rostropovich's account of the D minor Cello Sonata, yet it was bizarrely misplaced. Through hesitation, the poised line of the first movement was broken. Thereafter, nothing went too well for the cello, which insisted on playing as if the piece were by Rachmaninov.

Shostakovich's `Leningrad' Symphony: more than a musical newsreel of the war

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