Classical: LSO/ Rostropovich Shostakovich Cycle

Barbican Hall, London

Shostakovich left clues everywhere. Some are encoded, some aren't, some hide behind the mask of comic deception. Playing the fool among fools (only sadder and wiser) was his favourite pastime - the last refuge of a survivor. But the more you listen - really listen - to his music, the more you understand him, the more the historical and political context of his work begins to make sense. Some works grow in significance, others undergo dramatic re-evaluation. Some - like the Five Fragments which opened the third concert in Mstislav Rostropovich's epic series with the London Symphony Orchestra - never get heard at all. But hear them once, and the answers they provide become tomorrow's questions.

Everything in last Thursday's concert beat an overgrown path to the dissident Fourth Symphony. The enigmatic Five Fragments were like markers along the way: tiny frozen embryos awaiting impregnation. The even rarer Adagio Fragment of 1934, very likely a redundant early sketch for the symphony, was doubly fascinating: born into solitude on the whim of a solo viola plaint - so desolate, so needy - this curious malformation, full of distracted non-sequiturs, was going nowhere, and the composer knew it. Rostropovich introduced it (with inimitable charm) immediately before the symphony, pre-warning us that it would cease abruptly at precisely the point Shostakovich abandoned it. How strange, then, that it still sounded as if he had been maliciously silenced.

In between times, the First Piano Concerto provided flashbacks to the roaring Twenties, when the young composer earned his keep playing for silent movies. Mikhail Rudy and Rod Franks were the unholy alliance of piano and trumpet, the Laurel and Hardy of the enterprise (now there's a compliment). Slapstick and cheap burlesque go hand in glove here with an almost Chopinesque reverie. Belly laughs go belly up in the face of such sweet, sad, songfulness.

But such are the ways of the wise fool. And, of all his works, none are wiser or more foolish, rational or more irrational, cruder or more subtle, bombastic or more profound than the Fourth Symphony. Rostropovich directed an amazing performance, full of breathtaking extremes. The winter of discontent marched in only to self-destruct in the galloping anarchy of the first movement development - a demented fugue that no end of familiarity can ever prepare you for. The London Symphony went all the way with it. And the rest. Personalities shone in every department, none more so than Ian Bousfield's first trombone; he, like all great clowns, conveys pathos in every jest. In the finale of this piece, it's as if all Petrushka's fellow puppets come out to play. But who's pulling the strings? Not the Politburo, that's for sure. The Fourth Symphony should hereafter be known as "a Soviet artist's reply to un-just criticism".

Which is less a parody of Shostakovich's famously contrite description of his Fifth Symphony than you might think. Rostropovich still conducts it - as he did on Sunday - as if the relentless D major of the close were all mouth and trousers, a hollow victory carved out in bombast. That the rest of his reading has now redoubled in urgency only serves to make the point more strenuously. It's a maniacal march that now carries the first movement to the point of no return. The great Largo now seems closer than ever to Tchaikovsky. Such was the introspection at its close (the tremendous dynamic range of this performance evaporating to near-inaudibility) that even one listener seemed like too many.

Earlier, an unlikely looking combo - including three saxes, piano, banjo, and Hawaiian guitar - mooched their way through some seedily ironical Shostakovich jazz. It smiled, we smiled, but behind the eyes... a kind of emptiness. The kind that makes music in the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony. Violas and cellos in unison survey a very distant, very hazy horizon. What follows is quite literally breathless in its expectation, hope, longing. Something's coming, but what? And when it does - at a hell of a lick in this performance - is it no more than a stunning practical joke? (Why, the piccolo goes right off the end of the instrument at one point.) Soviet critics called the symphony "a torso without a head". It's got a head all right, but only one person knew what was going on inside it.

Cycle continues with the Seventh Symphony, 7.30pm tomorrow and Thursday, Barbican, London EC2. Booking: 0171-638 8891

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