Classical Music: LSO Shostakovich Symphony Cycle

Barbican Hall, London

"October, the Commune and Lenin": bold words that brought Shostakovich's fiercely futuristic Second Symphony to a close last Thursday in the first lap of Mstislav Rostropovich's LSO Shostakovich cycle at the Barbican. The October symphony was composed in honour of the Russian Revolution's 10th anniversary and marked a fitting start to the series, crawling to life Rheingold-style among reptilian strings before shouldering some astonishingly dissonant climaxes. The third orchestral passage opens to a high-flung violin solo; textures mount and coagulate - "ultra-polyphony", as Shostakovich called it - and the effect is every bit as disruptive as the most outrageous pages in early Prokofiev.

Slava's baton stalked the opening minutes patiently, tracing massive crescendos later on. The choral finale was brilliantly dispatched by the LSO Chorus, with intimidating emphasis on "Lenin", the symphony's literal last word. Contemporary political correctness meant that Bezymensky's patriotic text could distract commentators away from Shostakovich's radical creative leanings, but not for long: from the mid-Thirties onwards, it too became "formalistic depravity". But what a mind! Who would have credited a teenager with music as powerful and original as Shostakovich's First Symphony?

Rostropovich's leadership inspired maximum phrasal colouring from the LSO's soloists, especially in the mischievous first movement, although his super-fast tempo for the second made for some approximate ensemble- work among the cellos. The slow movement opens and closes to haunting trumpet reveilles, superbly realised here, while the finale's tragi-comic burlesque exploded in a storm of excitement as Kurt-Hans Goedicke thrashed out its principal theme on his timps.

Prior to the First Symphony, we had witnessed an even louder onslaught when nine percussionists charged headlong through a deafening first "interval" from Shostakovich's 1928 operatic farce The Nose. Rostropovich conducted a striking seven-movement suite which included baritone Egils Silins's characterisation of music for Kovalev (Gogol's nose-less protagonist) and a balalaika accompanied ditty by Kovalev's servant Ivan sung, with beguiling lyrical sweetness, by Kenneth Tarver.

The Nose is young man's music, innovative and wild, but Sunday's second concert in the series was no musical match for its predecessor. It opened with Shostakovich's first "serious" film score, The New Babylon, and while Rostropovich originally intended to perform six substantial movements, a pre-concert announcement warned us to expect only four. No bad thing, I'd say, as 33 minutes of joky musical quotations (mostly from Offenbach) and rip-roaring brass raspberries were more than enough to be getting on with. True, one or two lyrical moments offered the odd spot of respite, but with no screened images to justify the musical action, The New Babylon squandered expert playing skills and valuable time.

Having the stylistically similar Age of Gold suite follow in its wake tested audience tolerance levels to the full - so much so that the hilarious "Polka" didn't raise as much as a titter. Plainly, the jokes were beginning to wear thin. And in case you think I'm snobbishly snubbing the "lighter" Shostakovich in favour of the heavyweight symphonist, I should also say that the May Day symphony (No 3) is decidedly inferior to the October. Keystone-Cops-style ostinatos set up a clangorous din and the banner-waving finale is forgettable in all respects save for its sheer volume. If you missed it, fret not: but do try not to miss tomorrow night's presentation of the magnificent Fourth Symphony, together with an unknown Adagio fragment that was probably part of its original plan. That should be something else again (and will be broadcast live on Radio 3), while the lavish series booklet (a mere pounds 2.50, thanks to support from the Pamela & Jack Maxwell Foundation and The Foundation for Sport & the Arts) will tell you all you need to know, and much more.

Barbican booking: 0171-638 8891

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